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Bombs Away: Conservatives Embrace War

Doug Bandow
Campaign For Liberty
Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Leading Democrats and Republicans alike agree on the need for action against Iran. At least some liberal Democrats seem reluctant to use military force; in contrast, many conservative Republicans are eager to start bombing. While the latter say they oppose Big Government, these days they spend much of their time proposing new wars.

Conservatives once resisted the imperial tendencies of government. The Founders opposed creating a standing army. Even when the nation went to war — against Great Britain, Mexico, and Spain in the 19th century, for instance — Washington quickly demobilized afterward. Conservatives recognized the threat to individual liberty and budget economy posed by an imperial foreign policy.

The Right opposed Woodrow Wilson, who pushed the U.S. into the murderous slugfest of World War I to satisfy his own messianic pretensions. Conservatives led the fight against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s surreptitious campaign to take the U.S. into war against Germany while promising the American people that their husbands and sons would not be sent to die on foreign battlefields. Conservatives then were reluctant warriors who insisted on following the Constitution.

Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to expand the Korean War to the Chinese mainland: he settled for compromise rather than risk triggering World War III. And it was Eisenhower who both warned of the malign influence of the military-industrial complex and insisted that congressional approval was necessary to go to war. He may have been the last president to take the latter provision of the Constitution seriously.

Ronald Reagan belied his cowboy reputation, using the military only sparingly and modestly, intervening in Lebanon — which even he later implicitly acknowledged to be a mistake — invading Grenada, and bombing Libya. George H.W. Bush invaded Panama and attacked Iraq, but sharply limited U.S. objectives in the latter. Many Republicans were generally unenthused when President Bill Clinton turned American foreign policy into social work. Yet most GOP leaders, like 1996 presidential nominee Sen. Robert Dole, supported the Clinton administration’s bombing of Serbia, a campaign based on hypocritical humanitarian claims and no recognizable security objectives.

Then President George W. Bush launched grand nation-building crusades in both Afghanistan and Iraq; in justifying the latter he sounded like he was channeling liberal Woodrow Wilson. The administration also intervened to stage regime change in Haiti. The president, along with his officials and conservative allies, threatened military action against Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The administration apparently even considered intervening militarily against nuclear-armed Russia in Georgia — another conflict with no relevance to American security.

After sanctimoniously triggering a disastrous conflict which has killed at least 100,000, and perhaps many more, in Iraq, leading conservatives advocate doing the same to Iran. Republican Presidential nominee John McCain gaily sang what he termed the old Beach Boys’ classic “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” when asked about the issue. Today the Right takes for granted America’s unilateral right to unleash death and destruction upon whatever people in whatever nation for whatever reason. Like Iraq, Iran has neither attacked nor threatened America. “Bombs away!” appears to be the new conservative mantra. Lest some on the Right be uncomfortable with the results of the Iraqi war, the hawks say: Don’t worry, be happy. This time everything will work out. This time America will be received with love.

Moreover, argues Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, Barack Obama would benefit politically as well. The president, writes Pipes, “needs a dramatic gesture to change the public perception of him as a light-weight, bumbling ideologue, preferably in an arena where the stakes are high, where he can take charge, and where he can trump expectations.” So President Obama should send in the bombers over Tehran.

But President Obama should be skeptical of the argument that war with Iran would be win-win for America and his presidency.

First, war advocates say bombing would end Iran’s threat to the U.S. What threat is that, however? Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons. It isn’t even certain that Tehran is developing weapons. War enthusiasts who confidently claimed that Iraq possessed a fearsome nuclear capability now ridicule the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had halted its program. However, the latter conclusion, though controversial, was supported by evidence — far better evidence than that indicating Baghdad possessed nuclear weapons. There are good reasons to be suspicious of Iran’s intentions, especially after the revelation of the uranium-enrichment plant near the holy city of Qum. But hard evidence of a weapons program remains elusive. Some analysts suspect that Iran desires to establish a “turn-key” capability, like that presently possessed by Japan, rather than an arsenal. Even assuming the worst intent, Tehran appears to remain far away from actually building nuclear weapons, let alone deploying deliverable nuclear weapons.

Even possessing the latter wouldn’t be enough to endanger the U.S. Some analysts worry about the impact of an electromagnetic pulse attack more than a traditional nuclear strike. But in either case Washington could effectively wipe Iran off of the map as retaliation. The authoritarian regime in Tehran appears to be evil, not suicidal. It surely is undesirable that Iran develop a nuclear weapon, just as it was undesirable that Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China built nuclear weapons. That is, however, very different from saying that America would be at risk.

Second, Pipes worries that the Iranians “might deploy these weapons in the [Middle East], leading to massive death and destruction.” Deploy them against whom? While many Arab states are understandably uneasy about the prospect of a more powerful regime in Tehran, Israel is the only nation which publicly worries about being attacked. And it is the only nation most U.S. policy-makers worry about being attacked. Yet Israel has upwards of 150 nuclear weapons. The reason Israel developed nuclear weapons was to deter aggression by countries such as Iran. The Tehran government would have to be suicidal to attack Israel. Again, the fact that current Iranian leaders are malevolent doesn’t mean they are crazy.

Obviously, it would ease minds in Washington and throughout the Middle East if Iran was prevented from developing nuclear weapons. But then, minds also would have been eased if the Soviet Union, China, India, and Pakistan had never developed nukes. Some minds in the Middle East likely feel the same way about Israel. That doesn’t mean preventive war would have been a better response than wary accommodation in these cases, however. Loosing the bombers would not be the slam-dunk that most conservative crusaders seem to assume. Not all Iranian nuclear facilities may be identified and known works are dispersed and underground. The result of a U.S. strike, then, might only be to delay rather than forestall an Iranian weapon — at most a modest benefit not worth war.

An American bombing run also would reinforce the message sent by the attacks on Serbia and Iraq: only the speedy and secret acquisition of nuclear weapons can protect other states from unilateral U.S. military action. Tehran probably would redouble its effort; the already de minimis chance of North Korea abandoning its program would shrink still further.

Ironically, even a democratic Iran might choose to develop nuclear weapons. America’s long-time ally, the Shah, began Iran’s nuclear program before the Islamic Revolution. Any Iranian government might like the assurance of a weapons capability if not actual weapons.

Moreover, if the U.S. strikes Tehran, all bets would be off on a democratic revolution in Iran. The situation in Tehran appears to be explosive and the regime looks unstable. But how the Iranian public would respond to a U.S. attack, despite the growing popular estrangement from the government, is unclear. Certainly the regime would use any strike as an excuse to justify a further crackdown on the opposition. Despite dissatisfaction among the public and internal conflicts among the ruling elite, the regime might benefit from a “rally around the flag” effect. Nor would war be costless for the U.S. Retaliation would be certain. The degree of Tehran’s reach and potential for harm are disputed, but Iran is larger and more populous than Iraq. Iran might launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. and encourage proxy forces in the occupied territories and Lebanon to strike at Israel.

U.S. troops in Iraq would be especially vulnerable to attack by Iranian agents as well as Iraqi citizens sympathetic to their co-religionists next door. Tehran might not be able to close the Persian Gulf, but it could disrupt oil shipments and push up insurance rates. Washington’s gaggle of authoritarian Islamic allies — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States — could find themselves under popular assault from populations angered by yet another U.S. government attack on a Muslim nation. Political tremors even could reach already unstable Pakistan. Overall, it would not be as easy to end as start war with Iran.

A bombing run by Washington also would reinforce the meme that animates many terrorists, that the U.S. is at war with Islam. While U.S. officials debate how to improve Washington’s PR efforts abroad, the substance of American foreign policy continues to send a far more dramatic and powerful message. Although U.S. foreign policy does not justify attacks on civilians, U.S. policymakers must consider all of the consequences of their decisions.

The substantive arguments for striking Iran are dubious enough. Worse is Pipes’ contention that war would be good presidential politics. He points out, correctly, that opinion polls show popular support for military action. Moreover, he figures “Americans will presumably rally around the flag, sending that number much higher.” This is no argument for war, however. Presidents should not mete out death and destruction to boost their poll ratings.

Pipes also underestimates the political downsides of war. He writes: “Just as 9/11 caused voters to forget George W. Bush’s meandering early months, a strike on Iranian facilities would dispatch Obama’s feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene. It would sideline health care, prompt Republicans to work with Democrats, and make the netroots squeal, independents reconsider, and conservatives swoon.”

In fact, the Bush experience demonstrates that popular support for war can be temporary at best. Conservatives swoon all too easily at the sight of blood, since so few of the hawkish elites advocating promiscuous war-making actually serve in the military and risk their own lives. They leave that to the brave men and women who actually join the armed services. Independents and liberals usually are less impressed with aggressive war-making. Anyway, George Bush quickly turned the public against a war incompetently waged based on false premises resulting in disastrous consequences. Perhaps Iran would be a quick victory, resulting in regime change and democratic triumph, with statues of Barack Obama sprouting across ancient Persia. But then, Iraq was supposed to be a cakewalk, yielding a pro-American government willing to host U.S. troops and join the Bush administration in enforcing U.S. dictates elsewhere in the region. Something went wrong along the way. Counting on votes from a successful war against Iran might result in a trip to the unemployment line for President Obama in 2012.

There are no good solutions in Iran. The world will be a better place if Iran becomes democratic and abandons any nuclear weapons program. But initiating war likely would inhibit reform in Iraq while making the world a more dangerous place. The disastrous experience of Iraq should teach us many lessons, the most important of which is that war always should be a last resort. That standard is no where close to being met in Iran.

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