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Could We Justifiably Attack Iran?

June 25, 2019

Below is the text of an essay I published in the American Spectator, March 13, 2015.

A residue of Christianity remains in the American soul despite one hundred and fifty years of secularization and defines what America is. That may explain why a consensus among American voters is forming in support of intervention in Iraq and Syria. Historically Americans have responded to moral appeals, thus the increase in support for “troops on the ground” is connected to ISIS’ execution of hostages. Disseminated via the Web in produced videos, the American response to these murders is disgust, anger, and moral resolve. A similar resolve to go to war developed early in the twentieth century when Spain used “reconcentration camps” in Cuba deter revolution. In the nineteenth century, resolve to end slavery sustained the resolve of the North in America’s Civil War.

Few appeals to go to war on the basis of balance of power have been successful. When
Woodrow Wilson successfully made that appeal during World War I, it was not to sustain the balance of power in Europe, but to destroy it.

Cultural forces in the United States supporting military intervention on idealistic grounds have been developing since the administration of Woodrow Wilson. For many, therefore, the word “Realism” means “cold hearted,” and in the case of American support of Israel, a “realistic” foreign policy is often interpreted as anti-Israel because realists argue that commitments in foreign relations should be based on balance of power not morality.

For some realists, however, advocacy of a realist foreign policy cannot exclude idealistic support of the state of Israel. The Judeo-Christian tradition justifies support of Israel against hostile acts by its Muslim neighbors. It is clear, however, that there are limits to considerations of morality in foreign policy. Balance of interests, of power between nations, is the fundamental reality that underlies the conduct of foreign policy. Disruption of balance of power in a region or internationally is a danger that statesmen must strive to avoid at all cost. Yet, twice, American presidents disrupted the balance of power with disastrous consequences. President George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson each destroyed the balance of power; Wilson in Europe by committing the United States to entry into World War I, and “W” by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.

The destruction of the Russian, Austrian, German, and Ottoman empires that was the result of World War I created a vacuum into which stepped Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. The balance of the twentieth century preoccupied us with the consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance.

Similar conditions were created by President George W. Bush when he destroyed the balance of power in the Middle East by invading and deposing the regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. It is likely that the national interest of the United States will be challenged for all of the 21st century by that crucial mistake.

With removal of Iraq from the balance of power in the Middle East, Iran has benefited and given the upper hand in a contest with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the region. Smaller, less wealthy countries like Jordan will be fortunate to find a way to accommodate Iran. The national interest of the United States lies in blocking Iran’s domination of the region, even with military force.

Clearly, a nuclear Iran is not in the American national interest, but if appeals to the national interest are not effective without a moral ingredient, it is likely that no American president will authorize military action against Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, several mistakes in judgment by American presidents placed the United States at a very serious disadvantage. Military action aimed at destruction of Iran’s developing nuclear capabilities would be very difficult.

The primary disadvantage we face can be traced to our ignorance. We do not know where Iran’s nuclear facilities are located. We have significant conventional and nuclear
armaments to burst the bunkers where these facilities may be housed. But, we don’t know where all of them are located and after the bombs burst, American ground troops will have to search for installations we may have missed.

In World War II the United States engaged in a campaign against Japanese forces in
Okinawa. Dug into the hills of that island, it took American forces from April 1 to June 22nd, 1945 and 49,151 casualties to subdue Japanese forces.

An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will require ground troops that survey the success or lack of success of an American bombardment of supposed areas where Iran is developing its nuclear capability. How many will be required must be left to professional military planners. But, it is likely that we cannot accomplish this mission with fewer casualties than we sustained on Okinawa in 1945.

The American people have not been prepared for that level of casualties of American boys (and girls) and any American president who sustained those losses without first warning the American people and obtaining their assent would be impeached.

That might be the end of this story, but there is another strategy to consider: decapitation.

Iran is not a democratic regime. Democratic regimes are sustained by frequent elections and a democratic regime’s survival does not depend on the survival of leaders at the top of the administrative state. They are, quite simply, replaceable. That is not the case with autocratic or theocratic regimes like Iran. A decapitation attack that destroys the leaders of the Iranian theocracy will destroy the regime. The great question whose answer will shape the balance of power in the Middle East is whether the American electorate will support a strategy of decapitation.

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