Where Congress can draw the line: no war with Iran

Deciding what to do next about Iraq is hard -- on the merits, and in the politics. It's hard on the merits because whatever comes next, from "surge" to "get out now" and everything in between, will involve suffering, misery, and dishonor. It's just a question of by whom and for how long. On a balance-of-misery basis, my own view changed last year from "we can't afford to leave" to "we can't afford to stay." And the whole issue is hard in its politics because even Democrats too young to remember Vietnam know that future Karl Roves will dog them for decades with accusations of "cut-and-run" and "betraying" troops unless they can get Republicans to stand with them on limiting funding and forcing the policy to change.

By comparison, Iran is easy: on the merits, in the politics. War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq. While the Congress flounders about what, exactly, it can do about Iraq, it can do something useful, while it still matters, in making clear that it will authorize no money and provide no endorsement for military action against Iran.

Why? Think of the three ways war between the United States and Iran might start.

One is the surprise, "surgical" air operation against Iranian nuclear facilities to take them out before they cause too much trouble. This option is beloved of the kind of tough-guy op-ed writers who earlier cheered on a war with Iraq. It is not at all beloved within the U.S. military. That is because military officials know what would happen roughly five minutes after the attacks were over: a short-term effort to make things really difficult for Americans in Iraq (where Iran obviously has huge leverage), in world energy markets, and everywhere else -- plus a long-term, renewed effort to build Iran's own bomb. More than two years ago, this exercise in the Atlantic indicated that it was simply too late for the United States (much less Israel) to deny Iran a nuclear option via surprise attack. Since then -- well, it's even later.

The second option would be land war. Please. Iran is nearly four times as large and has nearly three times as many people as Iraq. With what army will the U.S. attack and occupy such a state?

And the third would be some kind of drift into war, Cuban Missile Crisis-style. Threats and bombast on both sides, hair-trigger preparations, each side hurrying to strike because it thinks it's too dangerous to wait for the other side to strike first. (Come to think of it, wasn't this the essence of the "National Security Strategy" the Bush administration laid out in 2002, with its concept of "preventive" war?) For the likely consequences, see Option One.

Would it be better if Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons? Of course. But there are certain important goals that cannot realistically be attained by war. This is one of them. Analogy: it would be far better if North Korea did not build a full nuclear arsenal. The United States should do all it can to keep that from happening -- but no sane person thinks that attacking North Korea, and provoking an instant assault on Seoul and neighboring cities, is the way to go.

If we could trust the Administration's ability to judge America's rational self-interest, there would be no need to constrain its threatening gestures toward Iran. Everyone would understand that this was part of the negotiation process; no one would worry that the Administration would finally take a step as self-destructive as beginning or inviting a war.

But no one can any longer trust the Administration to recognize and defend America's rational self-interest -- not when the President says he will carry out a policy even if opposed by everyone except his wife and dog, not when the Vice President refuses to concede any mistake or misjudgment in the handling of Iraq. According to the constitutional chain of command, those two men literally have the power to order a strike that would be disastrous for their nation. The Congress has no official way to prevent them from doing so -- it is interesting, and alarming, to think that in practice the safety valve might be the professional military, trained to revere the chain of command but faced with what its members would recognize as ruinous instructions.

What the Congress can do is draw the line. It can say that war with Iran is anathema to the interests of the United States and contrary to the will of its elected representatives. And it should do that now.