Home/Daniel Larison/“War-Wariness” That Somehow Doesn’t Apply to War with Iran

“War-Wariness” That Somehow Doesn’t Apply to War with Iran

David Ignatius comments on war-weariness and “war-wariness” in Congress on Syria, but then says this about Iran:

The House members who attended the conference seemed less skeptical about military options for Iran than for Syria. That’s partly because the Iranian threat is more obvious toward both the U.S. and Israel. But given the current public mood, Obama will have to work carefully to build support for any U.S. military action against Iran — convincing people that it’s a legal and necessary use of American power [bold mine-DL].

It seems to me that this credits Obama with powers of persuasion that no one possesses. Attacking Iran would be neither legal nor necessary, so it would be extremely difficult to convince most Americans of these things. Preventive war is by definition not necessary. An Iranian war would be one waged to remove a supposed potential future threat, which in this case may never exist. Because it would be a preventive war, no one–not even Iran hawks–seriously believes that attacking Iran can be justified under the U.N. Charter as self-defense. No doubt there are hawks willing to claim that an unprovoked attack is an act of self-defense, but that tells us nothing. It is the business of warmongers to present the wars they want as necessary and legal, especially when they aren’t.

The most discouraging thing in Ignatius’ report is how willing so many of these House members are to contemplate a war with Iran that would be significantly more dangerous and costly than anything currently being proposed for Syria. Everything the Syria skeptics say to Ignatius applies to Iran, except that there would be many more serious global consequences from a war with Iran than there would be from an intervention in Syria. Indeed, one of the reasons to be very wary of intervention in Syria is that it would make conflict with Iran that much more likely. Proposals for military action against Iran are likewise “half-baked,” there is no regional or international consensus in favor of military action, and there is no more appetite for a new war there than there is for one in Syria.

Public opinion on war with Iran is not entirely clear. While pollsters can ask questions that produce a very pro-war result, this usually comes from framing the policy choice in such a way that it favors military action. Paul Pillar explained this recently in response to the wording of a Pew survey:

Worst of all, the question as worded wrongly posits a military attack and an Iranian nuclear weapon as alternatives to each other, when in fact they would be more likely to occur in tandem. As the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, Iran has not to date decided to build a nuclear weapon. One of the likely consequences of a military attack on Iran, by either the United States or Israel, would be to precipitate just such a decision.

Depending on the phrasing, military action against Iran can be made to seem relatively free of risk and extremely likely to achieves its immediate goals, instead of hastening the outcome that it is supposed to “prevent.” In reality, attacking Iran would not be make Iran less likely to acquire a nuclear weapon, and the attack itself would involve enormous risks for regional stability and the global economy. When pollsters present the choice as one between “intolerable threat of Iranian nuclear weapons” and “extremely easy, short military action that averts horrible threat,” the latter option will usually win, but everything about this framing is misleading and wrong. A more interesting question came from the Chicago Council’s survey of American views on foreign policy, which asked whether respondents would support an attack on Iran without U.N. authorization. According to that survey, there was very little support for a war with Iran without U.N. authorization, and that authorization will never happen. If only 27% believe that the U.S. should take military action against Iran without U.N. authorization, most Americans aren’t likely to believe that there is any legal justification for attacking Iran without it. Of course, the administration has ignored public opinion on major foreign policy decisions before, and there’s no reason that it can’t do so again. We have to hope that the administration is now even more wary of unnecessary wars than the public.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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