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The Arguments Against Striking Iran

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After conversations yesterday with Jonathan Alter on my program, and Lawrence Korb, Peter Brooks and me on Kudlow & Company, I noticed the similarities between Alter’s and Korb’s objections to any military action against Iran. Although there is no transcript availbale yet of the Kudlow & Company exchange, I’ll see if Radioblogger can add that to his transcript of Alter’s appearance.

Here are the key objections:

1. The United States military cannot accomplish the mission.

Here’s Alter’s view, which Korb shared:

HH: Jonathan, do you doubt the ability of the American military, if told to take out the nuclear capability of Iran, to get it done eventually?

JA: Yes, I do doubt. We simply don’t have the intelligence for it. So they could have a sustained campaign where they could do some damage to…although without the bunker busters, how much damage…to some of the facilities, and they could perhaps set back their program by a couple of years. But I don’t think there are a lot of military people who would go…and from what I understand of the reporting that we have from inside the Pentagon, is that this is not something that the military believes is a doable proposition right now.

The first part of this objection is that we lack the intelligence to target the right targets.

The second is that the damage that the American military could inflict would be minimal.

The third is that the struck targets could be rebuilt.

All of these seem to me to be military questions, and the left’s assertions about the limits of the American military seem dubious to me. Unlike the problems posed by Iraq’s WMD, the location of the facilities which house the Iranian nuclear effort are at least patrially known, and some are very well known. While it is possible that, like North Korea, there is a completely secret second track deep underground, unlike North Korea, Iran has quite a lot of contact with the West and has been under the close observation of not just the U.S. and Europe but also Israel for decades. It seems likely as well that there are more people within Iran likely to be helping the West than there were in Iraq and certainly far more than in North Korea.

If the argument is that the intelligence in Iraq was flawed therefore no intelligence can ever be trusted, then the left is asserting that there is no way of ever knowing of a threat until after that threat’s deployment.

And if the argument is that the military is not up to the task, skeptics need to revisit not the long slog of the occupation but the lightning victory of the original invasion, using Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon’s June 19, 2003 summary of the effectiveness of American military might as a starting point.

Civilians like Alter and me have no business declaring what the U.S. military can or cannot do, but unless the military declares that a mission is beyond its capability, there is much more evidence for the proposition that the Pentagon can accomlish missions rather than the other way around.

2: Striking Iran will cause Iran to strike against our troops in Iraq.

Quoting Alter again:

[I]f we did this, there would be horrible repercussions for our troops in Iraq, because the Iranians would then immediately…they had hands off with the Shiites in Iraq. That would end. They would move into Iraq. We would then be fighting them in Iraq…

First, there is already an enemy in Iraq trying very hard to kill American troops. The Iranian-backed Sadr Army engaged American troops before, at the Battle of Najaf, much to their detriment as Austin Bay writes about today. Alter seems again to doubt the capacity of the American military to decisively destroy any counter-attacks from the Iranian military, which is absurd, or to suggest that Iranian cross-border meddling could be greater than it already is –another doubtful assertion.

But even admitting that Iran would try to make things worse in Iraq, that is an insufficient answer to the prospect of a nuclear Iran which, upon successful deployment of a nuclear weapon, becomes impossible to threaten over Iraq meddling. The only limit on Iranian interference now is the prospect of American retaliation. Add nukes to the Iranian military capability, and the prospect of Iranian meddling in Iraq skyrockets.

3. An attack on Iran will unleash Iranian-sponsored terrorism around the world.

Korb made this argument, and Alter did not, but it does appear frequently in the writings objecting to the idea of military action against Iran. Dana Priest’s front page April 2 article in the Washington Post began this way:

As tensions increase between the United States and Iran, U.S. intelligence and terrorism experts say they believe Iran would respond to U.S. military strikes on its nuclear sites by deploying its intelligence operatives and Hezbollah teams to carry out terrorist attacks worldwide.

This argument seems to support decisive, regime-changing military action rather than inaction, given that it presumes a capability and a willingness of the current Iranian regime to use terror around the globe and its proxy Hezbollah to conduct that terror.

Given that presumption, how can delay until Iran becomes a nuclear power benefit the West?

4. America’s position in the world will crumble if we attack Iran.

Courtesy of Zbig B. in today’s David Ignatius column:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, makes a similar argument about Iran. “I think of war with Iran as the ending of America’s present role in the world,” he told me this week. “Iraq may have been a preview of that, but it’s still redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran, we’ll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world will condemn us. We will lose our position in the world.”

I think Brzezinski is correct that the United States will suffer a great deal of intense and worldwide public criticism if an attack happens –and a great deal of private gratitude.

Will radical Shi’ite spokesmen denounce the U.S.? Of course. As will the usual suspects across the globe.

Compared to the prospect of Tel Aviv in ashes, and the retaliation from Israel that would follow, which is the course of prudence?

What all the aging cold warriors seem to refuse to want to recognize is that this is a very different threat from that posed by the never-other-than-wanting-to-stay-alive Soviet Union. Hojjatieh is not about preserving the peace or a balance of power, or any sort of cold or even lukewarm war. When I see an analysts deal with that problem and still counsel restraint, I’ll pay attention.

5. There are other ways of deterring Iran’s nuclear program.

The only argument against that makes any sense is that measures short of military action will deter Iran from going nuclear.

This could be a persuasive argument –it is the one the president has been making, btw– but thus far nothing has worked, and the Secuirty Council continues to dither. As Counterterrorism Blog’s Victor Comras argues today, absent sanctions with teeth, there is really very little prospect of reversing Iran’s rush to nuclear weaponry:

A multilateral diplomatic effort that stands any chance of dissuading Iran from Uranium enrichment must entail effective controls that stop Iran from procuring needed material, technology, and equipment. It must also entail harsh punitive sanctions that bring a heavy cost to bear on Iran if it persists. That means more than freezing the bank accounts of, or denying visas to, Iran’s Mullahs. The measures adopted must have a jolting impact on Iran’s fragile economy.

If the domestic left and its allies around the globe want to avoid the use of military force in Iraq, its spokesmen should immediately put forward demands for world action of the most severe sort, and specifics have to be attached to such demands. Critics of the possible use of military force that offer no alternative and refuse to acknowledge the menace that has now reached the stage of a public announcement and staged celebrations in Iran are simply noisy distractions from the central challenge of the generation.

I will gladly reprint here e-mails from military experts with supporting or opposing views, and will also oblige those who request anonymity provided I can be assured that the writer is who he or she says they are. This is the biggest debate of all, and I am glad to host some of it. E-mails can be directed to


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