Since September 11, 2001, the United States has waged wars to unseat the rulers of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, wreaking chaos and destruction in the process. The consequences—for American power and prestige, for the American troops killed and wounded, and for the people whose countries disintegrated into civil war—have been catastrophic. Given this dismal track record, one might think no policy maker, politician, or pundit would advocate attacking yet another government in the greater Middle East without answering a simple question: What happens after the bombing starts?
Most of the commentary advocating war with Iran fails this test.
Start with National Security Adviser John Bolton, the Trump administration’s most influential proponent of war. Last September, Bolton warned the Iranian regime, “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay … we will come after you.” We will come after you … and then what? What if—after America comes after Iran—Iran comes after America? Bolton doesn’t say.
That’s typical. In essays and interviews, Bolton has been advocating war with Iran since at least 2007. In many of them, he hurries past the “what comes next” question with the same brief formulation: War stinks, but there’s no alternative. “The consequences” of war with Iran, Bolton told C-SPAN in 2007, “would be negative. I think the risks are high.” In a 2008 Politico interview, he called military action “very unattractive.” (Then he added, “It just is more unattractive to have an Iran with nuclear weapons.”) In a 2013 article in The Guardian, he employed the phrase “very unpleasant.” In 2015 in The New York Times, he went with “inconvenient.”