Written by Brigadier General John H. Johns
It is common for candidates in presidential primaries to use bellicose language to prove their toughness. This kind of rhetoric is especially useful in Republican primaries, where audiences have a firm belief in the use of military power to solve problems. But toughness and wisdom are not the same thing.
The difference between the two was on display in the discussion of Iran that opened Saturday night’s Republican foreign policy debate, as it has been throughout the Republican campaign. Asked if he would consider a military option should current efforts fail to deter Iran’s work on developing nuclear weapons, Mitt Romney said, “of course you take military action, it’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
Newt Gingrich echoed Romney’s call. Previously, Herman Cain called preemptive force against Iran his “option B.” Even Jon Huntsman, who has been the most sober of the candidates on foreign policy, suggested that “if you want an example of when I would consider the use of American force, it would be that.” Rick Perry let us know that he would support Israeli military strikes too.
The problem with these arguments is that they flatly ignore or reject outright the best advice of America’s national security leadership. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, former congressman Admiral Joe Sestak and former CENTCOM Commander General Anthony Zinni are only a few of the many who have warned us to think carefully about the repercussions of attacking Iran. Two months ago, Sestak put it bluntly: “A military strike, whether it’s by land or air, against Iran would make the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion look like a cakewalk with regard to the impact on the United States’ national security.”
While rhetoric about military strikes may work as an applause line in Republican debates, there is little or no chance that military action would be quite so simple. Quite the contrary. Defense leaders agree that the military option would likely result in serious unintended consequences.
Meir Dagan, the recently retired chief of Israel’s Mossad, shares the assessment of the Americans cited above. He noted earlier this year that attacking Iran “would mean regional war” and went on to say that arguments for military strikes were “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
To be clear: everyone can agree that Iran is a serious problem. The development of Iranian missile technology is credible enough that NATO is (smartly) working with Russia to develop a defensive missile shield. And the most recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program should rally the international community to apply even more pressure.
But while Iran is a serious issue, it is equally true that they have been effectively isolated and weakened by the one-two punch of smart sanctions and the democratic winds sweeping through the region. The international sanctions have seriously damaged Iran’s economy and exacerbated a growing feud between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. It is important to avoid steps that would unite these political blocs.
Meanwhile, Iran’s most important regional ally, Syria, is struggling to avoid becoming the next regime toppled by a popular uprising. And given its own deep unpopularity with the Iranian public, the government may yet face a winter of domestic discontent. It has already had to face down strong segments of its population that want a less bellicose attitude toward the rest of the world.
We didn’t ask the tough questions in 2003 when America went to war in Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. The security of America and the stability of a largely redrawn Middle East depend on our ability to continue to isolate and contain a weakened Iran.
Running for President means running for commander in chief of America’s armed forces. If the candidates favor military action, as is their prerogative, they should desist from peddling the false notion of a simple “surgical” strike and answer the hard questions. How would they contain a larger regional war? Would they commit to a ground invasion? How would they pay for it? What is their view on the implications of another major deployment for the U.S. military? And why are they ignoring the advice of some of America’s most experienced military leaders?
America ought not consider another war in the Middle East without a very serious discussion of the consequences. Political candidates should curb their jingoistic, chauvinistic emotions and temper their world view with a little reflective, rational thought.
*John H. Johns is a retired brigadier general. He served as a combat arms officer in the Army for over 26 years and taught national security strategy at the National Defense University for 14 years. The article first appeared in the New York Times, 14 Nov 2011.
written by Shota Shvelidze, January 16, 2012
Thanks for uploading this nice piece. It is very useful topic at the moment for those who actively follow the primaries in US. It seems from the article that the republican candidates who are mentioned in this article are the most probable candidates from the whole party. However, it seems for me that majority of them do not understand the political situation in middle east in the world in general and especially lack understanding about the US foreign policy. The only politician from the republican camp who is wise, smart and honest is Ron Paul. I would suggest you to review his interviews and his vision of the US foreign policy. However, unfortunately he does not have chance to win the primary.
Nice blog, I am very impressed on knowing that this information is being shared here and actively discussed by these commentators here. I do want to know certain updates though.
Student of International Studies
written by Atul Menon, March 05, 2012
This is in fact a very well written and intriguing piece. Especially with regards to Iran's advancement in nuclear technology through the beginning of 2012 the tensions in the Middle East are continuously growing. It is of no doubt that Israel would have a ready plan of attack at a time or circumstance it deems fit. What is truly scary is what implications such an act of aggression would accomplish or even lead to. On top of this reports of Iranian nuclear scientist deaths as well as attacks on Israeli diplomatic missions in Thailand and India certainly do not help the nerves of Israel and Iran.
There is also a great deal of uncertainty regarding the depths of Iran’s nuclear program. The fact that Iran isn’t making its intentions any more transparent than it claims is not helping their position in the International arena either. It is certain that with all the violence being spread by the Arab spring already in the Middle East, any scale conflict between Iran and Israel is sure to draw in more security actors and cause a catastrophic amount of damage, deaths and destruction. At this point it is best to first determine the degree of Iran’s nuclear program and try to the best possible extent to bring about some form of agreements relating to curbing Iran’s “true” (it claims to need nuclear technology for energy and not weapons) nuclear intentions. At the end of the day the West would definitely consider nuclear weapons a threat in what would questionably be regarded as a rogue regime and if the West and/or Israel were to do something more militarily assertive a war would ultimately prove disastrous.
Nuclear Weapons in Middle East & Around the World
written by Rob Wheeler, March 05, 2012
This whole issue and situation is ludicrous. We should not even be having the conversation. Here is the situation, the US and other nuclear armed countries are telling Iran that they should not even think about developing nuclear weapons. Israel, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and there is no complaint and the nuclear countries are most resistant to getting rid of their own weapons. There is way too much hypocrisy going on in the world. If the West wants Iran to stop and eliminate their nuclear program then they need to work for a nuclear free zone in the entire region and endorse and work for the adoption of a global nuclear weapons convention to eliminate them. Now that would be an ethical position and make a lot of sense.
But can we expect the world's leading powers to do something like this. Well, there has been very little evidence of it so far.
World Alliance to Transform the UN