Iran and the Long(er) War
August 26, 2010
“Well, this would seem equally apt for the Thirty-One Years War that Iran has waged against the U.S. and the West more generally. Multiple administrations have done nothing as it waged a proxy war through terrorists groups against the West. Neither the Bush administration or the current one has responded to the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers (and Iraqi allies as well) killed by Iran’s weapons and operatives in Iraq. Iran too has committed human-rights atrocities against its own people and defied UN resolutions.
So now we are faced with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran that would, if it possesses nuclear weapons, certainly be emboldened to continue and step up its war on the West. The question for the Obama administration is whether to finally engage the enemy, thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and commit ourselves to regime change. The chances are slim indeed that this president would rise to the occasion. But perhaps, if Israel buys the world sufficient time (yes, we are down to whether the Jewish state will pick up the slack for the sleeping superpower), the next president will.”
She’s jumping and running with the same two fallacies I noted in Stephens’ article: that there is no difference in kind between US-Iran relations from 1979-2010 and the kind of relations the two states would have after the beginning of outright war; and that it was clearly inevitable from the regime’s beginning that it would come to war—that, in other words, war was immediately and transparently inevitable from the beginning.
As with Iraq, these pre-war years have not been true “peace”: Iranians have taken Americans hostage, funding terror cells that have killed Americans, pursued WMD, and threatened a genocidal war against Israel. The United States has sparred with Iran from time to time; has enacted an embargo; has condemned the regime as evil. Perhaps this is war. If it is, it’s a cold war.
And therein lies my problem with the rhetoric she and Stephens employ. For 45 years, the United States went to great pains to keep the cold war with the USSR from turning hot. Why? Because there was an inherent, fundamental difference between the two: economically, practically, morally, and in simple terms of human life. The adjective “cold” is in place for a reason: a cold war is something other than outright war.
This “cold war” between Iran and the US does not, of course, operate under the shadow of mutually assured destruction. But an invasion of Iran would, let us say, be at least as bloody, at least as costly, at least as long, and at least as likely to not succeed (not to fail, mind you—simply not to succeed, to land in some weird grey area) as the war in Iraq. From my best amateur’s guess, it would likely as not be significantly more so in most if not all categories.
Claiming that we have been at “war” with Iran for 31 years, eliding cold war and hot war, is an attempt to make irrelevant the questions: “Are the costs of entering into war with Iran too high? What will we gain by doing so? Is it truly necessary?” If we’re already at war with Iran, those questions are irrelevant: they are questions to ask before the war. The rhetoric strives to get us into war by pretending that we’re already in the same war that would occur were we to attack Iran. After all, if we’ve been at war since 1979, then the debate over whether to start a war is moot. We might as well just end the damn thing; it’s taken long enough, no?
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I should make one comment: the reason I’m interested in this point is not because I want to go around shouting that Rubin and Stephens are being disingenuous, or that I’m concerned particularly with what either of them think. It’s the language that I’m interested in, and that I find so striking—and, as far as I know, Stephens’ article — appearing on the not-quite-obscure WSJ Opinion page — was the first to push this linguistic version of events in Iraq (keeping one eye on Tehran), and Rubin, in addition to showing up conveniently in my Google Reader feed, makes the implicit explicit.
I’m concerned, that is, with what has concerned others before me: the hollowing of language by war. It is still perhaps the most striking concern of Thucydides’ great work:
“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” (3.82.4)