As he listened to the building drumbeat to send more troops to Afghanistan, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently observed: “Watching the American escalation … is like watching helplessly as someone you love climbs into a car while intoxicated and drives off toward a busy highway. No good can come of it.”
Eight years in and weeks after witnessing the Afghan election follies, the American public has begun losing its appetite for the war there. Yet President Obama just yesterday signaled that he has no intention of significantly reducing the scope of our commitment. The question remaining is whether he’ll commit the 40,000 more troops his military commanders want.
What has drawn far less attention is a new poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press suggesting that the American public seems poised to endorse yet another war, even as our sons and daughters keep coming home in body bags and even as our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to bankrupt our national treasury and exhaust our overextended military.
The poll reports that a “strong majority of Americans” – 61 percent – support military action against Iran if it’s needed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
I can understand this as the public’s gut reaction. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a man who denies the history of the Holocaust. He’s seen by some as a budding mini-Hitler himself.
But let’s take a deep breath here before starting another round of saber-rattling in earnest. Eight other countries are believed to have nuclear weapons, including Pakistan, the new home base of Al Qaeda. Should we bomb them, too? How about North Korea? How often can we wage “pre-emptive wars” in the name of a safer and more moral world before we bankrupt our souls as well as our country’s coffers?
Public opinion polls, of course, don’t always translate into presidential policy. But the rumblings of war against Iran surfaced in the final days of the Bush administration and could resurface again if fueled by strong, if uninformed, public support.
Perhaps Americans need to be reminded that Iran’s population is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. or that its gross domestic product, according to the CIA World Factbook, is nearly eight times that of both countries combined.
I’ll leave it to the foreign policy experts to quantify the risks of such a war, but they’re not hard to imagine — magnified hatred of what’s perceived as American expansionism, increased attacks against American interests worldwide, quite possibly widespread terrorism on American soil with an accompanying erosion of civil liberties. And that’s just at the beginning.
In a recent Sunday “Week In Review” piece in The New York Times about the Afghanistan debate, James Traub recalled the words of diplomat and scholar George Kennan, spoken 60 years ago:
“The problems of this world are deeper, more involved and more stubborn than many of us realize,” Kennan said.
That is why, Kennan argued, American power must be applied selectively and with restraint.
President John F.Kennedy drew a line during the Cuban Missle Crisis, but he never crossed it. The standoff was solved through diplomacy. Ronald Reagan may have dubbed the then Soviet Union “the Evil Empire,” but he didn’t attempt, to borrow the words of Vietnam-era Gen. Curtis LeMay to bomb it “back to the Stone Age.”
Neither president launched a pre-emptive war because one would likely have incinerated mankind. That risk has not disappeared today. It is just one reason why the public should be pushing President Obama to extricate himself and this country from the wars we’re in, rather than imagining the next one we might fight.