article

01.17.12

Leslie H. Gelb: Think Before Acting on Iran

America is once again stumbling toward war. If we’ve learned anything from the past, it’s that we’d better debate Iran policy before, not after, the fighting begins. By Leslie H. Gelb.

We’re doing this terrible thing all over again. As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts draw “red line” ultimatums. As before, we’re letting them quick-march us off to war. This time their target is Iran. And heaven knows Iran’s leaders are bad guys capable of doing dangerous things. But if we’ve learned anything, anything at all, from plunging into war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is this: we must have a public scrubbing of fighting rhetoric before, not after, the war begins.

Sure, there are risks in acting so sensibly. It does signal hesitation, even weakness, to the adversary. But to me, the far greater risk lies in not hesitating. The real risk is not fully, thoroughly, and publicly laying bare the case for war. In every major war of the last decades, the public assumed the government and the experts knew what they were talking about and proposing to do. But after a year or so, that faith collapsed. Except for those who would bless the sound of the cannon wherever it led, everyone soon realized the terrible truth: that government leaders had little or no idea what they were doing, what the invaded country was really like, and what could and could not be accomplished at what cost. By then, it was too late. Once our truly precious troops had been sacrificed and our prestige had been cast upon the waters, patriotism and politics overwhelmed reason.

For our own sake, don’t let this happen again. Let’s have carefully planned and extended public hearings on the pros and cons of war with Iran. Let those hearings be conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or a special public commission established by President Obama. Let’s do the job painstakingly and systematically, especially because Election Day beckons with its talons of stupidity and rashness. Yes, yes, I realize full well that a public pretrial is far from a perfect or even a good solution. But I cannot think of another way to slow down our familiar passive march toward war, and compel its drum majors to parade their plans on why the war must be fought and how it can be won. Hearings will surely confuse a lot of people, but at least give them their democratic chance to judge.

To step back, there are two issues likely to spark fighting with Iran: Tehran’s threat to block an internationally recognized waterway at the Strait of Hormuz, and its relentless moves toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

On the surface, the strait question is open and shut. If Tehran violates a fundamental principle of international law and closes an international waterway, that waterway must be reopened by whatever force necessary. My gut reaction is right there. But then the questions arise: Why does this burden fall almost entirely on the United States? What of the other states that buy and sell the Gulf oil that moves through the strait? How long will it take, and at what cost, to reopen the strait and keep it open? Is it necessary to attack shore targets to accomplish the job? How far ashore? And what of economic destruction and, above all, civilian casualties? Is such a military action likely to convince the Iranians that they must acquire nuclear weapons, or would it dissuade them? Would a U.S.-led naval action in the strait make it more likely that Israel would use this as cover to launch a full-scale attack against Iranian nuclear facilities? And would this broader action trigger Iranian retaliation against both Israel and the United States? There are no hard and fast answers to most of these queries. And yes, some military plans would be aired partially to Tehran’s advantage. Nevertheless, their being raised and addressed gives Americans a much clearer sense of what they’re getting into—and, more, compels Congress and the executive branch to think much harder about their intended actions. Often, administrations don’t answer the toughest questions themselves until they have to, until it’s too late.

I realize full well that a public pretrial is far from a perfect or even a good solution. But I cannot think of another way to slow down our familiar passive march toward war.

The red lines being drawn against Iran’s growing capability to construct nuclear weapons are even more tortured and dangerous. These lines are all to the effect that if Tehran continues to move toward a nuclear-weapons capability, President Obama will attack and take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. I won’t bore you with the exact formulations, which are not intended to be exact. The administration doesn’t want to be exact and thus to tie its own hands. Nor could administration officials formulate exact words, because they can’t yet agree upon them.

The bottom line is that the administration is firming up its threats without absolutely committing itself to any particular action beyond ratcheting up rhetorical pressures and economic sanctions. Obama has been mostly careful to avoid pronouncements recently and has put that burden at a little distance from himself—onto the worthy shoulders of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta’s now famous “red lines” have been a bit pinkish, for good reason, leaving some things to Tehran’s imagination. Or perhaps his intention is just to say enough to keep Israel from pulling its own unilateral trigger.

It doesn’t take a genius to see what lies ahead in our nation’s election year. Most Republican presidential candidates are saying that Iran will never get close to nukes if they’re in the White House. The candidates are outdoing one another in outrageous commitments to sound tough. Recently, Mitt Romney put it like this: “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon … If you’d like me as the next president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” And though we all know how careful Obama is, the dynamics of campaigns are bound to push him toward incaution to fend off charges of “weakness.” This is what happens to presidents in most elections.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee or some public commission has to pose the tough questions here: Do we really know enough to hit and destroy the key underground targets? If not, why go ahead? How long will it take for Tehran to rebuild the facilities and make them less vulnerable? What’s the potential for collateral damage on oil prices and lives? If Washington doesn’t use force, will Israel go it alone, and will Tehran regard this as a quasi-American attack anyway? If Iran actually acquired nukes, why wouldn’t prospects of an overwhelming Israeli or American attack in a crisis deter it? Iranian leaders haven’t acted like crazy Hitlers. They’ve been pretty cautious, forever issuing threats and making trouble behind the scenes, which suggests they’re deterrable. Would war on Iran trigger worldwide terrorist attacks? Is it in the overall interests of the United States, given our worldwide security needs and economic weaknesses, to enter another war? And don’t fool yourselves, this would be war.

As is our tragic pattern, almost all these tough questions are unasked and unhonored. All one hears is the familiar boasts and threats. They are rarely probed by our media stars.

Senator J. William Fulbright’s brilliant hearings on Vietnam and the James Baker/Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group both came far too late to save us. But there’s still time now for a full-scale, nonpartisan, and systematic examination of policy. Don’t let the usual hawks stop us with the argument that we’d be giving away too much information and signaling weakness to the enemy. What we’d truly be giving away if we heeded these hawks is not our military plans, but our constitutional and democratic rights to freely and openly debate whether our sons and daughters once again must fight and die.