10/29/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Some Thoughts on Being Afraid

Critics of the Obama administration have been energetically promoting the notion that our adversaries around the globe, especially Iran, aren't afraid of us. My question to anyone who believes this claim is: What, specifically, should they be afraid of?

Every government in the world got a detailed look at our military capabilities during the Iraq war. They saw how our equipment and tactics worked, or didn't, in a variety of battle zones. They saw how heavily the occupation relied on private security contractors. And perhaps most important, they saw how support from the American public headed south year by year as thousands of our troops were killed or injured and the financial cost headed toward a trillion dollars.

Another huge consequence of the Iraq war is that we lost the element of bluff. Sometimes the best weapon you have against an opponent is the ability to say, "You do not want to tangle with us. You have no idea how hard we can hit."

That option no longer exists for the U.S.

Do you think it's wrong for me to even bring these issues up in a public forum? Does it "send a message" to our enemies that Americans are divided and unwilling to defend our interests around the world?

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been hammered repeatedly for comments he made last December at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. In discussing the option of a military strike against Iran, Panetta took a cautionary tone and suggested that such an attack might start "a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret."

Advocates of a hardline approach complain that Panetta's remarks told the entire world the U.S. isn't truly serious about preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Earlier this month on NPR's Morning Edition, Dan Senor, an adviser to Mitt Romney, said, "If you want to talk to our allies about the difficulties involved, do it behind closed doors."

Here's a news flash: The Iranians, along with Pakistan, Russia and China, already know exactly what difficulties we'd face in launching another military operation in the region. The assertion that policy debates about the use of force should happen "behind closed doors" is a relic of the Cold War. It's also the first step toward suppression of dissent in the name of national security.

The "keep your lips zipped" attitude was on full display in Iraq. Journalists who reported on waste, equipment problems, treatment of Iraqis held in detention centers and other troubling aspects of the invasion were often accused by Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials of helping the insurgents, hurting troop morale and ignoring the need for Americans to present "a united front."

Now the consequences of our intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan are all out in the open and they're going to affect this country for decades. Thousands of injured veterans will need medical care for the rest of their lives. In Iraq, the stable, secular democracy envisioned by George W. Bush is nowhere in sight.

President Bush was firm in his assertions that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. I'll never forget Condoleezza Rice ominously stating, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." In hindsight it's obvious there wasn't nearly enough debate about the evidence of WMDs, much of which turned out to be flawed or downright bogus.

Allegations about Iranian progress toward an atomic bomb have a familiar ring. Candidates and commentators are saying, "Iran's bomb program must not be allowed to reach the 'operational' stage." So here we go again. The possibility of pre-emptive military action is on the table.

The difficulties and the consequences of that option are no longer hypothetical. We've seen how it affects the target countries, and our own. There should be an intense, detailed national debate about the potential benefits and harm of 'projecting American power' by force before we try it again. And the notion that such debates should only happen "behind closed doors" is something we should all be very afraid of.