War With Iran? A Time to Ask Questions

The United States is on a path to war with Iran. While the Obama Administration has made it clear that sanctions and negotiations are the desirable way to address Iran's (presumed) nuclear weapons ambitions, he has also made it clear that the United States will not allow Iran to possess such weapons. While there is no publicly announced timetable, we should not mistake that this is a line in the sand.

War may come in at least two ways. The most likely is that Israel strikes Iran, and Iran decides to retaliate against not only Israel but American installations and interests. Once attacked, we have little choice but to respond militarily, and that is the definition of (undeclared) war. Alternatively, we may reach a point on our own where we issue an ultimatum to Iran which, if not addressed favorably, will result in war.

These are, in fact, exactly the two ways we have already gone to war in the last decade -- against the Taliban and al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks and against Iraq when our ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was ignored. In the first case, war came at the initiative of someone else. In the second case, war came without sufficient proof of the danger or widespread public debate and consideration of the costs and "collateral damage" to America -- as well as Iraqi society and our interests in the Middle East.

We should not once again leave ourselves at the mercy of events or inadequate public debate. War may in fact need to come, but the time to adequately consider that need is now, not when the immediacy of the moment renders rational discussion and debate emotionally, or practically, impossible.

This is the time to raise questions. Our elected representatives bear the responsibility to do so, and we bear the responsibility to make them. Additionally, our representatives and our president bear the responsibility for articulating the answers to the American people, whose blood, taxes and support will be essential should war come. Among such questions are at least the following:

• Do we have sufficient evidence that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons? If not, how can we increase the probability that our conclusion on this is accurate?

• Why must Iran be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons? What would be the consequences for us and for the rest of the world if they do?

• What are the consequences of U.S. military action against Iran for our strategic interests and partnerships?

• If Iran as a nuclear power is dangerous for the entire Middle East, what are nations in that region who share that fear, and allies outside the region, prepared to do diplomatically, economically militarily, or otherwise to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons?

• Are American forces sufficient to respond to the military necessities of war with Iran, given the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on military personnel and materiel? Will war with Iran lead to demands on U.S. forces in other nations of the Middle East? If not, how can we become prepared?

• If the goal is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, and if -- as most assume -- Israeli or American attacks against Iranian facilities may do no more than delay nuclear weapon development, what are we prepared to do to assure that we can achieve our goal? Can it be achieved without a ground invasion of Iran? If not, are we prepared to do that?

• What will a war with Iran cost and how will we pay for it? Given the national deficit and debt and the state of our economy, what sacrifices are the president and Congress prepared to ask of the American people so that we do not have another war with borrowed or "off-budget" funds?

• What will the impact of war be on the American economy? For example, what will be the impact of a likely spike in oil and gas prices?

• How will we as a nation and our leaders respond if war with Iran generates terrorist attacks against the American homeland?

Admittedly, there are many more questions than these. Also, some of these questions involve very sensitive and secretive national security considerations and information. But we should not hide behind "national security" as an excuse to avoid raising and debating these questions. Some discussion may have to take place in secret in the committees of the House and the Senate, but even that does not excuse our leaders from engaging our nation in a conversation about this critical issue. We should be ashamed of ourselves as citizens if we allow more time to be spent talking about access to contraceptives, gay marriage and guns than we do the short and long-term need for and costs of war with Iran.

The most important and costliest American efforts of the past dozen years -- the home mortgage disaster, the failure of the banking system and its rescue and two wars -- have all taken place with sudden impact and insufficient debate. There seems an inverse relationship between the significance of a public issue and amount of reasoned analysis we are prepared to give it. We should not perpetuate that problem. Doing a much better job is something we owe to ourselves, to future generations, and to those who would be asked to give the last full measure of devotion in the next war.