What Would It
Take to Launch a War With Iran?
By Bruce Ramsey
Times" -- -- Iraq should have cured
President George W. Bush of any further itch for starting a war.
And yet there comes a rumble for an attack on Iran. Opposing
Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation sends out
emissaries, several of whom visited The Seattle Times.
Among them was Brig. Gen. John
H. Johns (ret.), who was assistant commander of the 1st Infantry
Division and a lecturer at the Army War College. Like other
generals, Johns opposed the invasion of Iraq, and he now opposes
an attack on Iran.
Is such an attack possible? It
is Bush’s last year in office. There is no time for a land war,
and anyway, says Johns, “We don’t have the ground troops to do
it.” But an air war is possible. Johns says it might destroy
1,200 to 1,600 targets.
Johns is not a spokesman for the
government. Whether that makes him less credible will depend on
your point of view. He lives near Washington, D.C., and
socializes with retired generals and CIA officers and others
from the security world. He speaks on behalf of a peace group.
Take that for what it is worth.
Here is what he says: Last year,
there was a push in the administration for an air war against
Iran. The given reason was Iran’s plan to build an A-bomb. Then
came the National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had given
up on it five years ago.
Says Johns, “The intelligence
community intended that to be public to lessen the president’s
chance of going to war. They wanted to avoid being complicit in
another war. That’s the story I get.”
Johns says a struggle is under
way in Washington, D.C. Those opposed to an attack include
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. Those wanting an
attack, he says, are the deputy national-security adviser for
global democracy strategy, Elliott Abrams; Vice President Dick
Cheney, “and the hard-line Israel lobby.”
Bombing Iraq is how Israel
scotched Saddam Hussein’s A-bomb, in 1981. Israel is much
admired for that, but preventive air attack is a high-risk
strategy. It stirs hatred, and it has a large downside if it
Diplomacy is lower-risk,
especially if there is time for it. Johns goes further, arguing
against an attack even if diplomacy fails. “Even if Iran got
nuclear weapons,” he says, “they’re not going to commit suicide
by using them.”
There may be other pretexts for
war. On Jan. 6 came an incident of Iranian speedboats zipping
around U.S. Navy ships in a provocative way. It could have been
another Gulf of Tonkin incident.
What would it take to have a war
with Iran? Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent
and author of “All
the Shah’s Men” (2003), was also part of the peace
delegation here. He says it might just take a decision. “The
possibility of an attack is real,” he says, and notes that
President Bush would not need a vote of Congress.
Air attack is an act of war. At
least, Americans thought so in 1941. But despite the
Constitution granting the war power to Congress, in Vietnam
(1964), Kuwait (1990) and Iraq (2002) our presidents have asked
Congress for permission to make war only when they expected
major fighting on the ground. Even to invade Iraq, George W.
Bush said he did not need permission and asked for it only after
Congress, and the public, raised an outcry.
In 1999, President Clinton
conducted a 78-day air war against Serbia even though the House
deadlocked 213-213 on a resolution supporting it, and the Senate
never voted at all. Clinton didn’t care; his position was that
he didn’t need permission for an air war.
What matters is not only the
Constitution; it is the outcry. Government does what it can get
away with - and in the last year of the Bush presidency, it is
still an open question how much that is.
Bruce Ramsey’s column
appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail
Copyright © 2008
The Seattle Times Company
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