Archive for May 20th, 2008

Attacking Iran would court disaster

The Jerusalem Post reports that President Bush, upset by the growing power of Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Iraq, plans to attack the cause rather than the symptom: Iran. Secretary Rice supposedly is standing in the way of this at this time. I can imagine the Pentagon probably has doubts as well.

It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous policy to undertake late in a President’s term. To attack Iran would be to risk a wider and dangerous war, with potentially devastating effects on American efforts in Iraq, and the price and supply of oil. Traditionally Presidents don’t undertake such consequential policies in an election year, especially when the President is lame duck. It could be that this is disinformation, designed to scare the Iranian regime into more conciliatory policies. On the other hand, an unpopular President may feel he has nothing left to lose, and doesn’t want to hand policy over to a Democrat who he thinks will “appease” the terrorists.

I believe an attack on Iran would risk not only another foreign policy fiasco like Iraq, but potentially the downfall of the United States as a major world power.

One can see the temptation to attack Iran. Many in the Bush administration remain in denial about Iraq, believing that they would be succeeding if not for the meddling of Iran. Yet if the shoe was on the other foot, the US would be doing the same thing the Iranians are doing. Clearly, the US invasion of Iraq created a danger for Iran, and it’s in their interest to try to assure influence over the future Iraqi state, and curtail American influence. That they have been effective, despite our massive military and economic presence, surprises and irks the administration, to put it mildly. Moreover, if President Bush believes what he told Arab leaders last week – that they are running out of oil and need to modernize their economies – the Iraq war looks a bit more rational. If oil is running low, and demand increasing, American dominance in a region with large reserves could be seen as an effort to prevent economic crisis in the coming years. That’s too Machiavellian to admit to the public, but makes more sense than the kind of rationale given in 2002 and 2003. If only Iran stands in the way of success in Iraq and close relations with top oil suppliers in the years to come as oil runs ever more scarce, why not invade?

The moral argument is obvious, but carries less weight with those who fancy themselves analysts of foreign affairs. War kills. It devastates cultures, destroys childhoods, creates orphans, widows and widowers, and often leaves damage that does not go away for generations. American soldiers also suffer; despite efforts to maintain silence, news grows of high suicide rates, divorce rates, and mental instability in returning veterans. These men and women have been changed by having to engage in and witness violent acts, as have the Iraqi civilians. It cuts at the soul. In real moral terms, do we have the right to do that just to get cheaper oil, or to put our regime of preference in place in Iraq?

Of course, the administration may believe they can do this on the cheap, a few shots at Iran and it will subdue them. On the contrary, they may respond by shutting the straits of Hormuz, or igniting a full scale Shi’ite insurgency in Iraq. The escalation could spiral into a full war, and the US would be hard pressed to win it without resorting to nuclear weapons, given conditions on the ground in the region. The result would certainly be a massive increase in oil prices, unrest growing as Hezbollah would no doubt increase their activity, with covert Iranian support, and the world could spiral into a depression and the equivalent of a world war.

I believe the failure in Iraq has taught the administration some hard lessons about how the world works and the limits of American power. They have certainly had better diplomacy in the past few years as in the first Bush term. Therefore I strongly suspect this is just saber rattling and efforts to put pressure on the Iranian regime to change policies. Iran does not want a war either, it would devastate their regime. A game of chicken, with high stakes, if you will. Yet even the possibility that a lame duck President with nothing left to lose could order something that could have such devastating consequences is very scary indeed.