The shadow of North Korea’s latest provocations has obscured Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Another war on the Korean Peninsula would be a disaster for the Korean people, even though the military defeat of the North that is sure to follow would no doubt lead to the end of the Kim ruling dynasty.
That said, Iran remains a smoldering issue that, unlike North Korea, is not posturing itself for war. Any decision to use military force against Iran has been deferred thanks to President Barack Obama’s successful visit to Israel last month. But herein rests a familiar lament for American policy: making war for the wrong reasons.
Of course, if North Korea attacks first, we have no choice. But in choosing to make elective war, perhaps the U.S. has a defective gene in its national DNA.
Fifty years ago next year, Lyndon Johnson used the pretext of the Tonkin Gulf incident for a de facto declaration of war against North Vietnam. A local naval commander had ordered his patrol boats to attack the USS Maddox on the mistaken assumption that the destroyer was abetting a clandestine naval raid against North Vietnam, about which Maddox was completely unaware.
Nearly 60,000 American and many more Vietnamese lives were lost in the quest to bear any burden and pay any price to defend freedom, as President John F. Kennedy promised in his inaugural address in January 1961. Tragically, Johnson took that commitment too seriously. America blundered into what became the Vietnam quagmire.
Thirty-nine years after the Tonkin Gulf episode, President George W. Bush launched his war into Iraq for the purpose of removing Saddam Hussein who, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, not only had links with al-Qaida, but also it was a “slam dunk” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. This notion was reiterated by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who frequently asserted Saddam had nuclear bombs.
Almost midway between these two wars, the Reagan administration intervened in Grenada in late October 1983, following a military coup in which Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was murdered. The arguments for the military invasion were fear of a Cuban/Soviet takeover of the Caribbean island and specifically, the building of a 9,000-foot runway from which Soviet aircraft could threaten America’s East Coast.
The pretext was assuring the safety of American students attending the island’s St. George’s medical school from capture or worse at the hands of the Cubans or new government.
The assault came just after the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut was blown up and 241 leathernecks killed. After the invasion was underway, the commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf, repeatedly and understandably was asked about the safety of the students, which was his top priority. He crisply responded to Washington that none was in danger and thus there was little urgency in getting forces to the medical school before securing the island.
Worse, the strategic runway had been under discussion for decades as a tourist magnet, and the prime contractor was the British firm Plessey, whose owners were fiercely anti-Soviet and highly capitalist, employing the cheapest Cuban labor.
Operation Urgent Fury was a near disaster, underscoring the inability of the four U.S. military services to operate together. Fortunately, that flaw was corrected. But the invasion was based on mistaken judgments.
What about Iran? First, assuming North Korea quiets down, Obama would be well advised to revisit why the U.S. blundered so badly in Vietnam and in Iraq the second time, arguably the two greatest foreign policy misjudgments in its history. Grenada offers further evidence of gross misjudgment in the rush to use military force, even though it was a sideshow.
Some will argue that Vietnam and Iraq were largely intelligence failures. While intelligence did fail, responsibility, culpability and accountability fell centrally on the White House and the president. The truth was either not relevant or expediently manipulated for cynical political purposes.
In Vietnam, as Johnson famously argued, communism had to be halted on the Mekong and not the Mississippi once the Asian dominoes fell. Unlike the first war, when Saddam had invaded a neighbor and had to be evicted, the raison d’etat was democratization of Iraq that would change the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East. Saddam’s links with al-Qaida and the certainty of his stocks of WMD were fabrications for war.
It is seductive to make the case to disarm Iran of its nuclear capacity. The ayatollahs are irrational and cannot be trusted. A Shia bomb will beget a Sunni weapon. The region will be destabilized. And Iran’s radicalism will spread.
Iran may indeed have nuclear aspirations. After all, what is the best way to deter the U.S., the West and Israel, all of whom have nuclear weapons? Yet history repeatedly demonstrates American vulnerability to a rogue gene in getting it very wrong. Mr. President, we hope that you are listening.
Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and a senior adviser at Washington’s Atlantic Council.