Asking Questions Before a War

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.
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A couple of my questions are now outdated.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.) Consortiumnews