General Bush's lose-lose Iranian war options
By Andrew Sullivan
-- -- There is something unreal about the
bellicose statements coming from some sources in the Bush
administration towards Iran.
On their face, they make a kind of sense. In terms of pure
military force, the United States probably could do a great deal
of damage to Iran’s malevolent attempt to gain nuclear weapons.
But so what? The same could have been said about Iraq in 2002.
Yes, the US military did have the capacity to destroy Saddam’s
regime. And it did so in three weeks. The salient question was
and is: what then? It appears that the Bush administration never
seriously asked that question in advance of war in Iraq and, in
a stunning fit of recklessness, never made serious plans for the
I don’t think even Donald Rumsfeld is nuts enough not to ask
that question this time with respect to Iran. The military
option is much more difficult, of course. Iran learnt from
Saddam’s Iraq and has dispersed its nuclear research and
development sites across the country. The US cannot invade and
occupy two huge countries at the same time.
If US intelligence is as good in Iran as it was in Iraq, the
chances of getting all of Iran’s nuclear capacity by aerial
bombing must also be close to zero. So the gain would be
fleeting. But the costs could be enormous. The most pro-western
populace in the Middle East — the Iranian public — could
overnight be turned into permanent foes of the West. A bombing
campaign could force most Iranians into the arms of the
genocidal religious nutcases now running the government.
For good measure, we’d probably be faced with oil at nearly $100
a barrel; and the complete disintegration of what’s left of
Iraq, as the Iranian-allied Shi’ite militias turned on US
forces. But there’s another factor that makes a military attack
on Iran a dangerous option for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis.
That factor is America itself.
What we’ve seen in the past few months is a cratering of support
for the president. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll
confirms the pattern: 60% disapprove of Bush’s performance and
38% approve. But when you look more closely at the numbers, you
find something more remarkable. A full 47% of Americans
“strongly” disapprove; only 20% “strongly” approve. Half the
country, in other words, don’t just disapprove of Bush; they’re
furious with him.
His party is even less popular. On Iraq, the Democrats are now
narrowly favoured over the Republicans — an astonishing
turnaround for a Republican party whose core strength has always
been national security.
To give you an idea of the shift, in December 2002, on the issue
of terrorism in general, the Republicans had a 61%-25% lead over
the Democrats. The numbers are now dead even.
Overall, the Democrats now have a larger poll lead over the
Republicans in congressional ratings than at any time since the
What does this have to do with Iran? Well, imagine a scenario in
which the president believes he has to bomb — maybe even with
low-level nuclear warheads — the nuclear facilities in Iran.
Given what we know now, it would be a very tough sell in
Without United Nations backing and solid allied support, the
president would have to ask Americans to trust him — on weapons
of mass destruction intelligence and on his skill in war-making.
After Iraq, that’s very difficult. Americans do not listen to
him any more. And they have discovered that they cannot trust
him to get warfare right, or even be candid with them about it.
The president could, of course, argue that he does not need
Congress’s permission to launch such a war. Good luck. A huge
bombing campaign against a large sovereign country over several
weeks is hard to describe by any other term than war. And the
constitution clearly gives that decision to Congress. This would
not be a sudden, minor mission, constitutionally permissible in
emergencies. This would be the gravest decision a president
could make. It would have incalculable consequences. It could
unleash a wave of terrorism across Iraq and the West. It would
put WMDs in the centre of a global conflict. It would alter
America’s relations with all its allies and enemies. If Bush
decided he could act unilaterally without congressional backing,
he could prompt a constitutional crisis.
The polls show potential public backing for military action
against Iran. One January poll revealed 57% supported attacking
Iran if it continued to get closer to nuclear capability; 33%
opposed. I’d bet that once the potential risks and blowback are
debated, the gap would narrow.
In the current climate, there’s a real danger that the very
debate could intensify divisions within America, with those who
strongly oppose Bush refusing to back this president in any
other war. An escalating nuclear standoff with Iran could, in
other words, unite Iranians behind the Islamists and foment deep
rifts in the United States. It’s lose-lose for the West.
Bush might find some allies. Both Senator John McCain and
Senator Hillary Clinton have been very hawkish towards Iran —
and they are both the presidential frontrunners for their
If the Democrats take back the house or Senate, they might,
ironically, feel more responsible for national security and more
open to military action. All this is possible and might make
some kind of attack on Iran more palatable. No level-headed
person, after all, wants the Iranian regime to get nukes.
The odds, however, are stacked against Bush. When you’ve lost
your own country, it’s hard to launch a war against another one.
Realistically, this president can try to stall Iran as much as
possible until a successor emerges who might have more
The trouble with narrowly re-electing incompetents in wartime is
that, when the 51% who voted for him get buyers’ remorse, and
the 49% who voted against him are angrier than ever, it becomes
all but impossible for a president to gain the national unity
necessary to fight and win.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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