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How a War with Iran Would Diminish American Power

Jennifer Rubin wants a war with Iran:

But the emphasis on the existential threat to Israel ignores a more basic issue for Americans to ponder: a nuclear-armed Iran represents a dagger at the heart of America and an existential threat to our status as a superpower and guarantor of the West’s security. As to the former, Iran is pressing ahead with its long-range ballistic missile program. First the Middle East and Eastern Europe, then all of Europe and, within a matter of years, the U.S. will be within range of Iranian missiles. If those are nuclear and not conventional, what then? We’re not talking about whether Iran is going to be “merely” a destabilizing factor in the Middle East or whether it will set off an arms race with its neighbors or imperil Israel’s existence. We’re talking about whether America will then be at risk (and lacking sufficient missile-defense capabilities if we continue to hack away at our defense budget). The argument about whether mutual assured destruction can really work against Islamic fundamentalists who have an apocalyptic vision becomes not about Israel’s ability to deter an attack but about ours. Those who oppose American military action have an obligation to explain why America should place itself in that predicament.

I would argue that any obligation to present an explanation lies with those whose disastrous policy prescriptions with respect to Iraq lead America into the worst strategic blunder in the country's recent history. That aside, note the blind faith in the power of the military to actually achieve its ends. The recent history in Lebanon is instructive on this point: Israel attacked Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 with an eye toward seriously degrading the group's ability to endanger Israel. And it worked - for a bit. Now, in 2010, Hezbollah is reportedly even better armed than before the war began. And this is a group that relies on outside aid crossing international borders to resupply itself. It can't call on vast oil reserves or the full resources that a state can muster.

Now imagine bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. At best, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a wide-ranging attack on Iran would delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. But it would surely impress upon Iran the need to redouble its efforts to seek those weapons. When those are rebuilt - as they would be - there would be almost no question that Iran would seek to actually "weaponize" its nuclear program and not merely have the ability to do so when it wants. What's more, any hope that Iran's citizens would look approvingly at the West when they eventually slough off the clerical regime would presumably take a severe hit. We would deal America's long-term prospects with Iran and the Iranian people a damaging blow and still have failed to achieve the ends we desired.

But Rubin makes a more sweeping point, that the U.S. must fight a war to maintain its imperial vanity:

And then there is the broader issue of America’s standing as the sole superpower and the defender of the Free World. Should the “unacceptable” become reality, the notion that America stands between free peoples and despots and provides an umbrella of security for itself and its allies will vanish, just as surely as will the Zionist ideal.

I can't speak for the Zionist ideal, but the concern about America's standing as a sole superpower strikes me as a terrible casus belli. First, it's simply wrong. China, India and Pakistan went nuclear, and America didn't tumble from its superpower perch. Whether or not Iran has one or two crude nuclear bombs has next to no bearing on America's superpower status relative to questions about the health of the American economy.

The second, more fundamental, problem with Rubin's analysis is that a war with Iran would actually accelerate America's fall from super power status. The war with Iraq dealt American power and strategic position a huge blow, with costs that vastly outstripped the gains, but a war with Iran could potentially deal an even greater jolt.

The major failure of the war against Iraq was the inability to articulate - let alone achieve - specific political goals for the post-war environment. We knew we wanted Saddam gone but we didn't know what would take his place or how we'd get from point A to B in post war Iraq. So it is with Iran. Commentary has devoted a lot of time to explaining why we should bomb Iran but has devoted almost no attention to the question what we do after we've attacked them. As with Iraq, concern for any post-war phase in Iran is simply glossed over, if it's dealt with at all. In theory, one should be expected to learn from their mistakes, not ignore them.

The U.S. military may know how to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, but it has demonstrated in two successive military conflicts that it cannot manage the post-war aftermath, let alone put in place political institutions that will serve America's needs (this is no knock on the military, this stuff is almost impossible to do). Neither can Washington's civilian bureaucracy, which can barely staff itself in Iraq. It beggars belief that Washington could cope with the aftermath of a war against Iran.

To insist that this is not relative to any conflict with Iran because we'd simply bomb them from afar implies that the aftermath of such a conflict is knowable or that the threat from Iran is so urgent and so imminent that it overwhelms our capacity for reasonable planning.

Neither of those positions strike me as true.