Listening to the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday, I heard all the things I expect to hear from Republican candidates—from fearmongering about the Mexican border to deafening silence about the 26 million people who still don’t have health insurance in the wealthiest nation on the planet.
I also heard a lot of bloodthirstiness about the Palestinians. Sadly, at this point I expect that, too. Even those MAGA Republicans who cosplay as “anti-war” when they’re talking about Ukraine are all in on this American proxy war.
One thing that did slightly surprise me, though, was how eager some of these people seem to be to start a war with Iran.
Referring to strikes on U.S. forces in the region by Iranian-allied militias in Iraq and Syria and the U.S. engaging in limited retaliation, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said: “We need to understand this is Iran giving the green light telling them what to do, and we shouldn’t be doing the tit for tat like what Joe Biden has done. We need to go and take out their infrastructure that they are using to make those strikes with, so they can never do it again.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) went even further, tying together Hamas, Hezbollah, and the militias in Iraq and Syria to draw the conclusion that “you have to cut off the head of the snake and the head of the snake is Iran and not simply their proxies.” There couldn’t, he suggested, be any diplomatic settlement with them—ever. “As president of the United States,” he said, “my foreign policy will be simple, you cannot negotiate with evil, you have to destroy it.”
But what would “destroying” the “evil” of Iran with some sort of decisive action to “cut off the head of the snake” actually look like? Even if you don’t care about the ocean of death and suffering this would bring to Iranian civilians just trying to live their lives, how many Americans would die or come home physically or psychologically broken by the time it was all over?
Why would we do that to ourselves—again?
You May Have Noticed These Wars in the Middle East Keep Going Badly
Afghanistan was the longest war in American history—and surely one of the most pointless. The U.S. spent 20 years bombing wedding parties and pouring money into the government installed in 2001. That government was so corrupt and unpopular that, when the withdrawal finally came in 2021, it wasn’t capable of surviving on its own long enough for withdrawing U.S. troops to make it all the way to the airport. Twenty years of bloodshed took us from the Taliban ruling Afghanistan to… the Taliban ruling Afghanistan.
A year and a half after he sent troops to Afghanistan, George W. Bush invaded a second country—Iraq. In some ways that one was such a disaster that it made Afghanistan look good.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in favor of a U.S. military occupation bitterly resented by most Iraqis led to an ethnoreligious civil war, the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in what had in important ways been a secular country, and spiraling waves of violence and chaos—including the rise of ISIS. Other than a few neoconservative dead-enders, it’s hard to find anyone in 2023 who thinks the world is a better or safer place because that war happened.
While the overwhelming majority of the deaths and dismemberments caused by the two conflicts were Afghan and Iraqi civilians, the consequences on the American side were still grim; 6,947 American men and women died—including, not for nothing, one of my high school classmates. Many times that number were wounded. And your guess about the number walking around with deep psychological trauma is as good as mine.
In Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address—written by one David Frum, since rehabilitated by liberals for his opposition to Donald Trump—he referred to various enemies of the United States as an “Axis of Evil.” One of them was Iran. Bordering both Iraq and Afghanistan, an invasion of Iran would have completed Bush’s grisly game of geopolitical tic-tac-toe. Perhaps if those other wars had gone a bit less catastrophically, he would have tried to do it.
The world dodged a bullet of immense proportions there.
Afghanistan was a far less developed country than either Iraq or Iran, and it had been experiencing a civil war since the Soviets were driven out in 1988. The Taliban only seized the capital of Kabul five years before the U.S. invaded, and it had to contend with independent warlords elsewhere in the country.
Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq was far more stable in 2003. He was in control of everything but the de facto independent Kurdish enclave in the north of the country. Even so, Iraq lost the first Gulf War 12 years before the 2003 invasion, it was never allowed to rebuild, and its air defenses had been shredded by years of regular U.S. bombing by the time Bush invaded.
By contrast, Iran is—to put it bluntly—a real country with a real army. Not on an American scale, of course, but even so. The Iranian armed forces consist of 610,000 active-duty personnel, plus another 350,000 available for mobilization—not to mention the various closely allied forces, like Hezbollah, that the candidates were talking about on Wednesday night.
Saddam Hussein and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan were also diplomatically isolated in a way that Iran just isn’t. It exercises massive influence in the region—including, thanks to Bush’s war, Iraq—and it’s allied to Russia. The potential for aid coming from all sorts of quarters during a war with the United States should give even as enthusiastic a warmonger as Nikki Haley pause.
With Or Without the Heels, Don’t Be Dick Cheney
To be fair, I’m sure that if someone asked Haley or Tim Scott the direct question, they would say they don’t want an all-out war with Iran.
I don’t know what Tim Scott would count as “cutting off the head of the snake” or what the alternative would be to either regime change or eventually coming to the kind of détente he explicitly ruled out, but he never actually said the word “war.” Maybe he and Haley just want to…what…to bomb the hell out of them for a few days and just get away with it without the Iranians lifting a finger in response?
As delusional as that is, Haley seemed to say as much at one point: “Iran responds to strength. You punch them once, you punch them hard, and they back off.”
So, in her worldview, Iran is both an incredibly dangerous country that needs to have its whole “infrastructure” “take[n] out” in such a final way that they can “never” provide aid to forces fighting with the U.S. again—but also so weak and cautious that if President Haley tried it, they wouldn’t even fight back?
In some ways, the most disturbing thing about the debate is not that Haley fully lived up to Vivek Ramaswamy’s apt (albeit hypocritical) description of her as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels”—or that Tim Scott came off as even more Cheney-esque with his apocalyptic ranting about negotiating with evil and cutting off the head of the snake. Or that Ron DeSantis at least gestured in the same direction, saying that Iran should have “hell to pay”—whatever exactly that means.
It’s that no one contradicted them. The moderators didn’t ask any follow-up questions about why exactly anyone should believe some sort of massive attack against Iran wouldn’t be the first step in a wider war. Former Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) at least hinted that he disagreed—he said something about “isolating” Iran, which implies that he doesn’t want to go further than that—but he didn’t say so outright.
Ramaswamy, who had that “Cheney in three-inch heels” line ready to go as part of his general positioning as a “new” kind of Republican different from neocons like Haley, didn’t say, “Nikki, are you out of your mind? Even Biden is finally signaling that he wants to wind down the war in Ukraine because we’re running out of resources to continue it. And now you want to start another war in the Middle East? Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t enough for you?”
He didn’t say that—none of them said that—because at a time when the whole GOP is waving the American and Israeli flags in unison and cheering on Benjamin Netanyahu’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza, saying “Hey, let’s at least make sure this doesn’t escalate into a broader war” would make them look like maybe they weren’t waving those flags hard enough.
With Biden already providing arms and money for the onslaught and only the feeblest gestures at humanitarian restraint, these guys all need to find ways to out-hawk the incumbent.
And, of course, Donald Trump, who’s creaming all of these people in the polls, is no better. This is the guy who, the last time he was in office, ripped up Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and brought us closer to the war Haley wants than we’ve been in decades.
Whatever else you want to say about all this, one thing everyone should stop saying—forever—is that any of these people are “anti-war.”