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.”
But absent any discussion of what “unattractive,” “negative,” or “unpleasant” actually means—how long the war might take, how much it might cost, and how many Americans and Iranians might die—these phrases are throwaway lines. They’re particularly hollow when contrasted with Bolton’s far more detailed, and menacing, picture of the supposed alternative: an Iranian bomb.
One exception to this pattern is a 2015 essay in National Review, in which Bolton devotes a full paragraph to the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran (an action that he supported). “Iran would most likely retaliate by unleashing Hezbollah and Hamas to rocket Israeli targets, especially terrorizing civilian areas,” he declares. “What is not so likely is that Iran would take any action that would generate a U.S. military response, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz, mining the Persian Gulf, or attacking the Gulf Arab states or deployed U.S. forces in the region … Other speculation about Tehran’s response is fanciful.”
In his essay, Bolton offers no evidence to support these claims: No quotes from Iranian leaders, no analyses from regional experts, no review of past Iranian military action. Then he declares any additional speculation “fanciful,” as if his own evidence-free speculation is anything but.
Bolton’s external allies are no better. In a May interview with the journalist Margaret Hoover, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas suggested war with Iran would be quick and easy. “Two strikes,” he announced confidently, “the first strike and the last strike”—and that would be it. This month, Lindsey Graham similarly reassured listeners that an attack on Iran would not produce “endless war.” In The New York Times on June 14, Bret Stephens urged, “If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy.” He said nothing about how Iran might respond. Two days later in The Wall Street Journal, Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations mocked observers who claim that “if war comes, the mullahs are ready to trap America in another Middle Eastern quagmire.” What these worrywarts miss, they explain, is that “Iran is in no shape for a prolonged confrontation with the U.S. … Iran’s fragile theocracy can’t absorb a massive external shock.”
If this glib reassurance sounds familiar, it’s because Americans heard it from the very same people before the war in Iraq. Gerecht wrote a New York Times op-ed in November 2002 titled “An Iraq War Won’t Destabilize the Mideast.” Bolton that same month asserted that “the Iraqi people would be unique in history if they didn’t welcome the overthrow of this dictatorial regime.” Because new Iraqi leaders would quickly consolidate control of the country, he explained, “I expect that the American role” after Saddam’s overthrow “will be fairly minimal.” Asked in 2003 how much longer American troops would need to stay in Iraq, Graham replied, “Perhaps a year or more.”
I don’t write this from a position of innocence. I supported the Iraq War. (And wrote a book about why I was wrong). My prewar prognostications don’t hold up any better than those put forth by Gerecht, Bolton, or Graham. But those of us who advocated war—and were proved disastrously wrong—have a special responsibility to grapple, in detail, with the potential costs of another one. As David Brooks wrote in 2015, in a column on what he had learned from having supported the invasion of Iraq, that experience should lead “us to honor those who respect the unfathomable complexity of history and who are humble in the face of consequences to their actions that they cannot fully predict or understand.” I don’t detect much humility from the people now advocating war with Iran.
Iran hawks might start by reading a June Foreign Affairs essay titled “What a War With Iran Would Look Like,” in which Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security surveys the potential aftermath of attacking Iran. “The Islamic Republic,” he writes, “can use proxy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to attack the United States and its partners. It has an arsenal of ballistic missiles that can target U.S. bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Its mines and land-based antiship missiles can wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and drive up global oil prices. Iran has the capacity to shut down a significant portion of Saudi oil production with aggressive sabotage or cyberattacks, and with its paramilitary unit known as the Quds Force, Iran can attack U.S. targets around the globe.” A war with Tehran, he added, could “cost hundreds of billions of dollars and hobble not just Trump but future U.S. presidents. Such a commitment would mean the end of the United States’ purported shift to great-power competition with Russia and China.”
Is Goldenberg right? We can’t know for sure. But every Iran hawk has a moral obligation to publicly wrestle with these potential consequences. Then, after considering them in detail, they should explain why Iran—which scrupulously complied with the most rigorous nuclear inspection regime in history—poses such a threat to the United States that it’s worth risking these outcomes by launching a war. If every op-ed editor and cable anchor demanded such an accounting from the columnists, officials, and legislators promoting war with Iran, I suspect the debate over whether to attack would look very different. In fact, I suspect there would be no real debate at all.