The Ever Present Military Option

Last week, retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring "There Is a Military Option on Iran." It’s probably not a coincidence that Wald’s piece was hot on the heels of John Bolton’s "While Diplomats Dither, Iran Builds Nukes." It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the general who was the air commander for the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan would argue that the U.S. military is capable of attacking Iran’s nuclear and other military facilities. What is somewhat surprising is Wald’s overall "tone," which is less hawkish than the title of his op-ed suggests.

To begin, Wald does not make an argument that the military option is the best and preferred first option. He states, "The military can play an important role in solving this complex problem without firing a single shot. Publicly signaling serious preparation for a military strike might obviate the need for one if deployments force Tehran to recognize the costs of its nuclear defiance." The problem with preparing to take military action, however, is that – politically – it practically forces the United States to take action. If Iran called America’s bluff, any U.S. president would be perceived as weak if he or she chose not to act – which is the last thing the leader of the world’s superpower is going to do.

At least Wald recognizes that what so many liberal internationalists consider a "diplomatic" option – economic sanctions that could include a naval blockade of Iranian ports – is actually an act of war. But he says so almost blithely without recognizing the repercussions. If the United States engages in an act of war without having been attacked (not that we would ever do such a thing, mind you), then Iran might choose to retaliate in probably the only way they can – using terrorism. It is exactly this kind of cause-and-effect that U.S. policymakers routinely gloss over.

Nonetheless, Wald proclaims that "the U.S. military is capable of launching a devastating attack on Iranian nuclear and military facilities." Yet such bravado is tempered with some doses of reality:

"Of course, there are huge risks to military action: U.S. and allied casualties; rallying Iranians around an unstable and oppressive regime; Iranian reprisals be they direct or by proxy against us and our allies; and Iranian-instigated unrest in the Persian Gulf states, first and foremost in Iraq.

"Furthermore, while a successful bombing campaign would set back Iranian nuclear development, Iran would undoubtedly retain its nuclear knowhow. An attack would also necessitate years of continued vigilance, both to retain the ability to strike previously undiscovered sites and to ensure that Iran does not revive its nuclear program."

And Wald’s closing statement to the jury seems almost tepid: "But should diplomacy and economic pressure fail, a U.S. military strike against Iran is a technically feasible and credible option."

To be sure, military strikes are always technically feasible. But credible with respect to what? That they inflict the intended damage? That the overall result is what we want? In the case of Iran, that the regime will choose to halt its nuclear program? Better yet, that the Iranians (both regime and people) will somehow like the United States for bombing them? What is even more incredulous is that we would believe that the Iranians would not at least try to retaliate – as if we did not retaliate after being attacked on 9/11.

Ultimately, what is probably most discouraging is that Wald’s op-ed is not entirely out of sync with Obama administration policy. It is worth noting the president’s speech in Prague in April with regard to nuclear proliferation:

  • "Some countries will break the rules. That’s why we need a structure in place that ensures when any nation does, they will face consequences."
  • "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons."

The logical (and inevitable) conclusion to such rhetoric is the use of military force. In that respect, the difference between Obama and Bush is more in style than substance.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.