Asking Questions Before a War

The neocons who rushed the United States into war with Iraq are trying the same with Iran, albeit with less influence over President Obama than President Bush. Still, the truncated debate on Iran is causing flashbacks among some policy experts who fear a repeat of Iraq, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Leslie Gelb has a piece worth reading at The Daily Beast about Americans’ propensity to save their tough questions about American overseas military adventures until after such expeditions are undertaken and go sour, rather than asking the questions before the expeditions begin.

“We’re doing this terrible thing all over again,” says Gelb. “As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts  quick-march us off to war.” Gelb’s current concern is the push to go to war against Iran, but he is describing a pattern that has been all too familiar in the past.

Leslie Gelb

Gelb is well qualified to make such observations, based on his experience in directing the writing of the Pentagon Papers as well as his later work as a journalist, State Department official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The internal deliberations, described in the Pentagon Papers, on intervening in Vietnam in the mid-1960s were actually quite thorough in most respects, although they were trumped by images of falling dominoes and a fatalistic belief that even a losing war effort had to be waged to keep U.S. credibility intact.

Deliberations outside the government were nothing close to thorough. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the congressional authorization for the war, was passed speedily after only brief hearings.

Nearly four decades later, external deliberations on launching a war against Iraq were even more cursory. This time, a congressional authorizing resolution was passed with no hearings. As for deliberations inside the Bush administration, there weren’t any.

Unlike with the Vietnam War, there was an astounding absence of any policy process for determining whether the war was a good idea. Many of the questions that have since been asked in public hand-wringing over the Iraq War about who said what at the time are almost irrelevant, because hardly anyone was paying attention to things that were said that turned out to be important.

Gelb lays out some questions that ought to be asked about any military action against Iran. I’ve raised such questions as well. In fact, I raised a large number of them almost five years ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “What to Ask Before the Next War.”

A couple of my questions are now outdated. With the completed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for example, we fortunately no longer have to wonder what Iran would do to those troops in retaliation. And in asking what a war against Iran would do to the price of oil, the possible figure I posited of $150 per barrel surely understates where the price would go in response to hostilities today. (When I was writing in February 2007 oil was selling for around $60 per barrel; this week Brent Crude was going for about $111.)

But most of the questions are just as relevant as they were in 2007. If I was raising such questions five years ago, that means we should have had plenty of time to study them, especially for something as drastic as launching another offensive war.

I invite you to look at the questions and ask whether public debate has adequately considered them, let alone provided answers adequate to justify another such adventure. Those questions included:

“What would be the urgency of taking forceful action, given that the announced estimate is that Iran is still several years from acquiring a nuclear weapon? If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, how would that change its behavior and affect U.S. interests? In particular, why would deterrence, which has kept nuclear peace with other adversaries, not work with Iran?

“How much would Iran’s nuclear efforts be set back, especially given that bombs are not very good at destroying knowledge and expertise? Would the Iranian response be appreciably different from that of Iraq after Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981 (Iraq redoubled its nuclear efforts while turning to different methods for producing fissile material)?

“How would Tehran respond to an act of war? What terrorism might it launch against the United States? What other military action might it take, with the risk of a wider war in the Persian Gulf? Other effects concern Iranian politics. How much would the direct assertion of U.S. hostility strengthen Iranian hard-liners, whose policies are partly premised on such hostility? How much would it add to all Iranians’ list of historical grievances against the United States and adversely affect relations with future governments?

“Some might argue that the worst case that could ensue from an Iranian nuclear weapon is so bad that it trumps all other considerations. But there is no more reason than there was with Iraq to consider the worst case of only one side of the policy equation. And the worst case that could result from U.S.-Iranian combat is plenty frightening.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared in The National Interest.)

14 comments for “Asking Questions Before a War

  1. Hammersmith
    January 24, 2012 at 10:30

    We are foolish to resist the drift toward war with Iran. What better way to end Empire America?

  2. Michael
    January 22, 2012 at 14:16

    The Neo-con agenda is still in play.

  3. January 22, 2012 at 14:16

    In our nation’s run-up to what seems to be a likely war against Iran we must not forget the influence of our extremely militaristic national political culture.

    For example,in the exiting TV mass-media promotion of ugly contentiousness between Republican presidential candidates and their cheering-sections, Ron Paul, the only contender who was even financially critical of our bankrupting trillion dollar wars, was consistently booed by his audiences for being anti war.

    If a war was suddenly provoked by any of the belligerants in the middle east,imagine how pugilistic the dominant majority of our nation’s opinion-enforcers at all levels of social-economic classes would become. They would be angy intolerant triumphalists.

    Citizens who were even slightly like Chris Hedges would be loudly villified and branded as traitors and friends of our enemies.

    The wrathfulness of patriarchal-terrorist religions would flare up and out of control from coast to coast.

    The “axis of evil” and “threat to national defense” scapegoating would silence all but a small, brave but helpless anti-war minority.

    That situaltion is built into the explosive emotional life of our national politics and entertainment industries.

    There would be those who warned against devastaing disruptions in our international energy systems. But these would not be anticipated as part of the go-to-war demands of our imperialistic global-genda majorities.

    Before it is too late, now is the time that we should support anti-imperialists like Ron Paul, even though his Libertarian social ideas are loved by the economic classes at the top of our wealth-driven society.

    • RogerRamjet
      January 24, 2012 at 03:02

      “…we must not forget the influence of our extremely militaristic national political culture. …”

      You left out; “… narcissistic false-sense of pathological self-importance …”. Barry and Hilary should co-write a book called; “How to make enemies and lose all influence.

      But we can rest assured all sins will be accounted for because the US electorate is going to elect exactly the sort of bankster hollow-man it deserves, and they will get all they deserve, and more.

  4. Kenny Fowler
    January 21, 2012 at 16:56

    Questions were asked before Operation Iraq Liberation. The answers given were a pack of lies but nobody cared. War fever swept the land from the President to the citizens. War fever has subsided. This time around the President is listening, does care, and won’t be swayed by a new pack of lies, coming from many of the same people involved in the previous rush to war. President Obama has established the fact that he won’t be conned into starting a war. What will happen in the future? One thing is certain, the Neocons and the Israeli’s will be back to make another rush to war. Asking questions is the best way to stop them.

  5. TOMxEU
    January 21, 2012 at 09:40

    Well as long as USA will not get a taste of their own medicine, they will never understand it. There was no war on USA territory for 200 years and USA has not won a single war since WW2, so they have no idea, what a war is really about, only US veterans can, but noone listen to them.

  6. January 21, 2012 at 00:07

    The Iraq war established a democracy in a Muslim world. The premature withdrawal of our troops could give that democracy an early demise. We do have a commitment to defend Israel if it is attacked by Iran. That situation would have Hamas and other anti-Jewish organizations also attack Israel. Our prime objective should be to arm Israel to actually be a guardian for us. Asking question that only have answers in probabilities is purely guess work. History as you suggest is the only teacher. Provocation by Iran can induce a military action that should be handled by a well armed ally ,like Israel. Being the middle east is a hotbed of hostilities against us, any military action could escalate into war involving the Muslim countries in the whole middle east.

    • David Buchan
      January 21, 2012 at 04:22

      “The Iraq war established a democracy in a Muslim world.” – You have got to be joking? The Iraq war taught Iraqis’ they can invade and occupy any country they want to without any just reason whatsoever. If the result of 10 years of occupation leaves 1.4 million people dead, 2 million displaced and their cities destroyed. That is democracy? – How many other brainwashed ‘patriots’ actually believe this?

    • Aaron
      January 21, 2012 at 17:27

      What democracy in Iraq since the war ? All Washington has achieved is the installation of an authoritarian sectarian Shiite fundamentalist regime responsible for the mass murder and massive displacement of Iraqis on the Bush administration’s watch, not to mention random terrorism in that country since the US occupation which has become permanent with that huge useless fortress of an embassy protected by an army of private mercenaries.

      How is that any better or any different than Saddam’s regime who committed his crimes against Iraqis when he had full support from the Reagan administration ?

      And speaking of Israel, the entire Arab and Muslim world will leave it alone when it abides by international law and implements a tangible solution for Palestinians that regards borders and a reasonable just settlement for refugees since 1948. Even Saudi Arabia the most assbackwards regime in that region has agreed to that, including the fact that it would officially recognize the Jewish state and engage in open diplomatic and economic relations, and all the other states would follow suit.

      If that happens, along with mutual recognition, I’ll be the first one to defend Israel if it is attacked with no justification, regardless of its actions committed in the past.

    • Frances in California
      January 23, 2012 at 16:45

      jacobus, you can’t even have graduated high school getting this SO wrong. Withdrawal of our troops will make no difference whatsoever, except maybe tamp down the hatred of American imperialists among both sides of Iraq’s US-instigated civil war.

    • RogerRamjet
      January 24, 2012 at 02:20

      You’ve heard of Indonesia, right? Only the world’s largest Muslim country where its people decided on their own, to demand root-and-branch democratic reforms, in 1998 and 1999 … no bombardments or occupational slaughter in the name of phweedom, libartee and yellow puppies.

      Then there’s Malaysia … where the same applies.

      You guys pushing this democracy-via-war obscenity sound like throw-backs from another era where rape and pillage and general barbarism were the norm.

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