03/29/2012 11:01 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

Spring Fever, War Fever

"America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy," John Quincy Adams said famously, but increasingly America sees monsters around every corner as we look abroad. Of course you do not negotiate with monsters, you slay monsters, and once again America's trigger finger is getting itchy.

Last week President Obama struck the traditional pose of the commander in chief, standing on the DMZ, staring down North Korea through his high-powered binoculars. One leg of the axis of evil, North Korea, is not just developing nuclear capability, it has nuclear weapons, it has sold nuclear weapon technology, and within a month it will launch a rocket capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Until his death, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was caricatured as a dwarf in high heels with a propensity for R-rated videos, not exactly the rational actor one can contain with embargoes, diplomacy, and the threat of annihilation.

Often dubbed 'the most dangerous nation on earth,' Pakistan not only has an expanding nuclear arsenal, they have shown a willingness over the years to share their technology, for a price, with the likes of North Korea, Libya, Iran and Syria. But these unstable, not always rational, nuclear armed actors are not at the top of America's list of monsters to destroy.

Back in the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev used to boast that "We will bury you," as he banged his shoe on the UN conference table, but US presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan lived with the Soviet nuclear threat. Now Vladimir Putin's Russia has negotiated agreements to reduce nuclear and chemical stockpiles; it was America in 2003 which begged off on any more missile reductions, until President Obama restarted the START agreement two years ago. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney was skeptical of the agreement, and last week he called Russia the 'number one geopolitical threat in the world.'

But for now Romney's trigger finger is not aimed at North Korea or Pakistan or Russia, it is aimed squarely at Iran, and here he has strong bipartisan support along with a president who is struggling mightily to slow the tides of war. Like the lead up to the war in Iraq, Democratic leaders at best have a bad case of the mumbles, and at worst are complicit in taking options off the table and making war with Iran more inevitable. It has been generations since America went to war following a formal congressional declaration of war; more likely the president acts citing a series of non-binding sense of the Senate resolutions which never use the word war but lead the way to the battlefield. The Iraq Liberation Act was signed by President Clinton, with bipartisan support, and facilitated President Bush's rush to war five years later. This is reminiscent of last month's bipartisan Iran resolution in the Senate which states, in effect: Iran capitulates on its nuclear program, military or otherwise, or else. Or else is the current metaphor for war.

"I know that containment might have been viable for the Soviet Union during the cold war, but it is not going to work with the current fanatical Islamist regime in Iran," said outgoing Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Of course, there were similar arguments directed at the shoe-thumping fanatic Khrushchev, not to mention Mao's nuclear-armed China, which spoke of sacrificing half of China's population in a nuclear war to promote communism. Presidents from Truman and Eisenhower to Reagan and Clinton chose containment. "Trust but verify," Reagan commanded, and the Iranian call for talks starting next month must focus on verification of the civilian uses of the Iranian nuclear program.

North Korea's neighbors have also chosen containment and diplomacy, with mixed results, and neither South Korea nor Japan have pulled the trigger or gone nuclear. America's security guarantees have deterred aggression, so far, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia may be eyeing similar guarantees. And Pakistan and India may be two nuclear-armed scorpions in the bottle glowering at each other, but they have not gone to war in over forty years, despite terrorist provocations and a proxy battle next door in Afghanistan.

There are options, none of them good, but John Quincy Adams and the founding fathers before him were spot on that war is the last resort. If the politicians want a war, let them formally vote a declaration of war and a commitment to pay the price in blood and treasure. For generations we have backpedalled into war without a formal declaration or a commitment to sacrifice. Over the years the politicians revving up for war have told us that the troops will be home by the end of summer, by the harvest, or that it will be a 'clean' air war without ground troops, or that 'shock and awe' will turn the locals against the regime, we will be greeted as liberators, and the war will pay for itself. Sound familiar? "I don't oppose all wars," said a young Barack Obama in 2002 during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. "I am opposed to a dumb war, a rash war," and a war with Iran is dumb and rash.