Commentary

Don’t Start Another War

By William A. Niskanen
This article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on February 23, 2007.

President Bush continues to rattle the saber with Iran, declaring openly that Iranian weapons are killing U.S. troops in Iraq, and appearing to establish a pretext for possible military action. But a few blocks east, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton have asserted that Bush does not have the authority to broaden the war beyond Iraq’s borders.

President Bush wisely warned us that the early withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq might lead to a larger regional war, and we should take steps to avoid that. So why does he seem to be preparing for a war with Iran, and maybe Syria? In January, Bush accused the Iranians of “allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq,” and “providing material support for attacks on American troops,” but the administration revealed no evidence of the latter until a military press conference in Baghdad a month later. And as Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said, there is still no evidence that Iran’s senior leadership approved the deployment of these weapons to Iraq.

It looks as though the administration is setting Iran up as a bogeyman in much the same fashion it did with Iraq in 2002. Three recent developments strengthen the credibility of Bush’s threat to Iran:

Contrary to the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission, the Bush administration conspicuously omitted Iran and Syria from the list of Middle Eastern governments with which it will use “… America’s full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq.”

Second, Bush announced that he had ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike force and Patriot missile defense systems to the region. BBC news recently reported that Central Command has already prepared a plan for an extensive U.S. air strike on Iran.

And third, U.S. forces have detained Iranian nationals in Iraq, without the approval of the Iraqi government. In December, U.S. troops arrested two senior Iranian officers, both of whom claimed they had diplomatic status and were later released. Later, U.S. forces detained five Iranian officials who claimed they were establishing a consulate in Kurdistan.

Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and White House press secretary Tony Snow denied that the administration was preparing an air strike on Iran, but the announced deployment of an additional aircraft carrier task force and Patriot missiles to the region suggests otherwise.

U.S. forces completely control the airspace in Iraq, and there are few suitable targets for air strikes there, so another carrier is wholly unnecessary to that mission.

The Patriots will be deployed in Gulf states, Bush tells us, “to reassure our friends and allies.” But to reassure them against what? The only nations in the region that have medium-range missiles that would threaten these states are Iran and Syria. And in unusually blunt language last year, Iran warned the Gulf states that it would retaliate against them if the U.S. attacked Iran from bases in these states. The deployment of the additional carrier strike force and the Patriot missiles makes sense only if the administration is preparing to do so.

One tragic side-effect of U.S. air strikes against Iran is that they would almost surely lead to the defeat of our mission in Iraq. U.S. ground forces are already stressed to sustain current deployments, and Iran can threaten American interests in Iraq and around the region.

Following recent Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf, including the test-firing of a medium-range anti-ship missile, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “if the United States were to attack Iran, the country would respond by striking U.S. interests all over the world.” The U.S. mission in Iraq has sought to create a unified, effective, democratic and independent government there, and though that objective may always have been a fantasy, it would surely be sacrificed by broadening the war.

More fundamentally, the October 2002 war resolution provides authority for the use of U.S. military forces only to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” a narrowly defined mission that was accomplished in the first few weeks of the U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003.

No other nation is mentioned in this resolution, and it would take an exceptionally tortured interpretation to sanction war with any nation other than Iraq. So the President has no authority for a broader war.

Congress and the press would serve us well if they questioned the administration forcefully about its reasons for deploying additional military forces to the region, and whether they think they need additional authority for strikes beyond Iraq’s borders.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute and was a former member and acting chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.