It was just over ten years ago that saber-rattling sent U.S. military forces to Saddam Hussein's doorstep under false pretenses. Almost two years since the last U.S. troops left, few can point to what the sacrifice of thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars was all for. Alarmingly, it appears that many in the United States have not learned from this terrible debacle.
First there's the nuclear confrontation with Iran: The fear that Tehran could develop nuclear weapons and threaten Israel remains the pretext for new military operations. The American and Israeli military and intelligence establishments warn against an attack, citing concerns that an invasion would involve high levels of civilian and personnel fatalities and long-term investment for little substantive gain. Yet legislation wends its way through the Senate that would urge the Obama administration to provide military and political support for Israel should it choose to attack Iran. A staggering three-quarters of the Senate already gave its approval for the measure.
The seemingly unending escalation of violence in Syria between the Assad regime and the armed rebellion in the face of international condemnation sparks a great deal of impatience in American foreign policy discussions. It appears that enough policymakers are aware of the grinding gears of ethnic and religious tensions to allow cooler heads to prevail, but some in the Senate, such as Senator John McCain (R-AZ), are still calling on the United States to step in and overthrow the regime despite the fact that doing so would spin the vortex of violence in Syria further out of control. Such an intervention would start with the implementation of a no-fly-zone, but it might become just as complicated, expensive and painful as the war in Iraq.
And now there is the ratcheting up of tensions on the Korean peninsula. A flurry of North Korean provocations and South Korean and American countermeasures have made the prospect of war more tangible than any time in recent memory. Without effective communication or credible intelligence, a minor mistake or miscalculation could spark the powder keg of war ablaze and, no doubt, draw the U.S. military into the fight. Thankfully, the North Koreans do not appear to have the capabilities to launch a nuclear attack, but that does not mean the war would not come with heavy casualties.
Washington would neither have to foot nearly as much of the bill nor commit as many soldiers as it did in Iraq, but there are other aspects of a military engagement that must be considered: What happens if the North falls but the war turns asymmetric? Can the two countries integrate effectively? What becomes of Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal? How would it affect the regional balance? A headlong charge into battle would likely come at the expense of weighing such consequences.
Though experts speculate that Kim Jong-un's threats are hollow maneuvers, the headlines are dominated by U.S. military pledges of greater material support to South Korea to the point where it is unclear if American diplomats are working to ease tensions. In retaliation, the North Koreans to threaten greater nuclear production is a growing cycle of belligerent rhetoric and posturing. Representative Peter King (R-NY) is dangling the idea of a preemptive strike on Pyongyang. Where there is one call to war in Congress others will surely follow. Media coverage is not making the situation much better: The topic of discussion focuses heavily on the march to conflict rather than on what the U.S. and the international community can do to quiet the dogs of war before they bite.
The United States should not attempt military intervention in any of these crises: It should not invade Iran, intervene on the ground in Syria or provoke war in East Asia. Aside from the moral imperative against fomenting or worsening conflict, the U.S. has neither the resources nor the will any of these undertakings would require. Let's not forget that it still has to responsibly wind down its military involvement in Afghanistan. There are limits to the applications of American hard power, but there are other instruments of American influence that should be explored. In each of these cases diplomacy and political will ought to be given a chance to do what arms cannot.
The war in Iraq teaches us that the American public can be drawn into pointless and costly wars if its elected officials refuse to listen to reason and its media fails to challenge convention wisdom even in the face of inscrutable fact. It seems that some in Congress have forgotten the shame of their Oct. 10, 2002 vote and the media the consequences for its failure to be an effective watchdog and gatekeeper in the months before it. Their persistence in the face of facts threatens to push the U.S. towards the precipice of more poorly-planned, ill-conceived wars. The debate on these crises must change while there is still time to head off another terrible mistake.