Of the many oddities of the Republican challengers to President Obama, the most serious is their vow to go to war with Iran. This is now such a common staple of GOP rhetoric in the campaign trail that it's scarcely newsworthy when yet another White House aspirant thumps the war drums.
Only Ron Paul, of course, has disparaged the impulse to attack Iran. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have all in one way or another vowed military action against the ayatollahs.
The war cries come at a peculiar moment: we have just finished Operation Iraqi Freedom, another attempt to punish an authoritarian regime for allegedly building weapons of mass destruction. The results of that war are plain: no weapons found, a half million or more Iraqi deaths as a result of the war, five million displaced, and a price to the U.S. of $3 trillion, thousands of dead, tens of thousands wounded, and hundreds of thousands suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
This grisly outcome, so devastating for Iraq and costly to America, tells us something about what a war with Iran would look like. (It is much a more relevant comparison than the failed war in Afghanistan, though the results there, too, should sober us.) Not that Iran has much military prowess: the New York City Policy Department probably has about as much firepower in its arsenal. But Iran has other means.
It can activate Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine to attack Israel. Neither group acts at the direction of Tehran, but a U.S. assault on Iran would be viewed far and wide in the Middle East as yet another American blow against Islam. Other militant groups would join in. Radical Islamists in the newly emerging democracies of the Arab Spring would gain in their own countries.
At a time when America should be encouraging moderates in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere to follow the democratic secularism of Turkey, we would instead be giving the anti-American zealots a competing rallying point -- the Islamic Republic of Iran -- with potentially disastrous results that could last a generation.
Iran can stir actions against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and exacerbate the tense political situation in Iraq as well.
A war with Iran would also demolish the green movement inside Iran, which remains potent despite official crackdowns, but would be crushed completely if America attacked.
And while there's a debate about the efficacy of military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, the consensus of expert opinion is that bombing the enrichment plants can set back Iran's nuclear development but not destroy it. There is also the prickly fact that there's no convincing evidence that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons.
So we have a phantom threat that is being used by nearly the entire Republican Party to generate war fever. Never mind that the consequences of bombing or invading Iran could be catastrophic across the region. Never mind that American lives would be at risk. Never mind that the largely pro-American Iranian public would turn against us overnight. Never mind the human costs of war. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney all insist that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, plus drone and special ops attacks in Yemen and Somalia and Pakistan, just aren't quite enough to show American toughness against radical Islam.
What is striking about this GOP pose is how reckless it is -- precisely the kind of recklessness that created such a bloody mess in Iraq. Their lack of common sense or simple knowledge is stunning. There was a time when the Republican Party stood for the somber judgment of gray men in gray suits exuding caution. There was always a cowboy wing, but even the paragon of that -- Ronald Reagan -- never got us into a major war.
Today's Republicans are quite different and considerably more dangerous. Their ill-informed military adventurism matches their know-nothing economic policies and their anti-science bent. They campaign as if rationalism and knowledge are signs of weakness. This obviously is deleterious for challenges like climate change, but the more immediate consequence is in foreign policy.
Let's remind ourselves of the Iraq War to illustrate the point. Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs after the 1991 war. Yet we imposed sanctions that resulted in the deaths of between 300,000 and 500,000 children and gave rise to religious extremism in Iraq (sanctions that were sustained by President Bill Clinton). Without minimally competent intelligence, we insisted he was building lethal arsenals and invaded.
Occupying Iraq was a model of incompetence and stirred a resistance that plunged the country into a nightmare of violence and destruction. It is likely that between 600,000 and 800,000 or more Iraqis died as a direct result of the war.
All the while, the Republicans were cheering this war of choice, begun by President George W. Bush, and in fact have criticized President Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too soon, even though it was a fundament of Obama's 2008 election. Nearly nine years of this devastating war are apparently not enough for the leaders of the party.
Obama's quiet but firm policies toward Iran -- while debatable in many respects -- have kept the pressure on without resorting to belligerence. Whether it's working is difficult to say, but early this week Iran asked the U.S. to return to negotiate on their nuclear program.
The boundless thirst for war among Republicans, by contrast, underscores yet again how extreme their politics have become. Unable to devise diplomatic strategies or simply recognize how puny the Iran threat is, they reflexively reach for the bomber. And that we as a society have not adequately accounted for the human costs of the Iraq War gives the Republicans permission to be reckless again.
John Tirman is the author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars