The United States, led by aggressive war hawks who lack skin in the game, is edging closer to war with Iran. It is incredible that after thousands of lives lost in Iraq, not to mention trillions of dollars wasted, with no clear, *just* accomplishment, that we would consider yet another regime change war. (One may argue we toppled a dictator and gained access to strategic bases and oil in the Middle East — remember, I said *just*. Ask the millions of Iraqis terrorized by ISIS because of the power vacuum we created if what we did was just.)
First, does Iran pose a direct and imminent threat to the U.S.? Seems doubtful. While the Iranian regime has been hostile towards the U.S., they haven’t struck any U.S. targets directly as far as we know. It would be very difficult for them to strike the U.S. mainland. Other countries probably pose greater threats to our immediate well-being. China and Russia both have nuclear weapons, large armies, intercontinental ballistic missiles, extensive cyber warfare capabilities, and the ability to disrupt our global supply chains, but we aren’t openly escalating military tensions with any of them at the moment. This leads me to believe our issues with Iran are for reasons other than protecting the U.S. mainland.
Iran is also hostile towards our allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia (this author does not believe friendship with Saudi Arabia is ethical, but that is a subject for a different time). Iran funds terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah to spread violence on Israel’s borders. While Saudi Arabia supports Syrian rebels, Iran sends aid to Assad’s regime. As both Israel and Saudi Arabia exert significant influence over the United States in terms of trade, weapons deals, and in the case of Israel, cultural bonds, there may be pressure from these nations to deal with the Iranians once and for all.
Iran does have something the United States craves: oil. According to data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Iran is the 7th largest oil producer in the world. Iran also controls the Strait of Hormuz, an important trade route through which about 20% of the world’s oil passes.
What’s to gain?
We’d no longer face the possibility of a nuclear Iran. Eliminating the hostile regime would assuage our allies in the region. Iranian sponsored terrorist groups could be weakened. We could also establish military bases close to Russia’s southern border.
Oil likely plays a part as well. When asked how he would handle Libya’s Muammar Al Gaddafi in 2011, President Trump told the Wall Street Journal “I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil”. The National Review published a story on Trump’s “Odd Fixation on Seizing Middle Eastern Oil Fields” in 2015 that outlines additional instances of Trump’s aggressive stance on oil. And as recently as 2017, in an interview with ABC news, Trump said “we should have kept the oil” when asked about the Iraq war. Notice a common theme? While Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran, hawkish advisors like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo might use oil as the carrot to lead the president in the direction they’ve so long desired.
This all begs an interesting question — why not Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia supports terrorism and an extreme form of Islam that has produced the likes of Osama Bin Laden and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Saudi Arabia has more oil than Iran. Saudi Arabia murders journalists, crucifies political enemies, and only recently allowed women to drive. Why are we not hostile towards a regime so diametrically opposed to American values?
It might be because our leaders and corporations are already in bed with the Saudi’s. Donald Trump claims he has “no financial interests in Saudi Arabia”. Reporting by various outlets shows otherwise, the relationship primarily consisting of real estate deals. The Clinton Foundation has received donations from the Saudi’s. The Saudi’s recently agreed to a $7 billion weapons deal to the delight of the military-industrial complex. As the former CEO of oil-giant Halliburton, it’s not too much of a leap to assume Vice President Dick Cheney may have had ties with Saudi Arabian oil. Sadly enough, our treatment of the Saudi regime is one of the few things that goes across party lines.
I suppose Iran screwed up when they overthrew the dictator we installed.
At what cost?
There are two sets of people for whom I’d like to examine the potential costs: the U.S. leadership and the rest of us.
What costs would people like Donald Trump and John Bolton face over war with Iran? They and their families will be far from the fighting. It doesn’t seem likely Iran could topple our government in retaliation, either. Generals can be replaced easily if mistakes are made — a way of shielding the leadership from ownership of the problems. In fact, Trump and Bolton may have something to gain personally (outside their espoused patriotic and moral values, the sincerity of which this author is not concerned with). A wartime president has never lost a reelection bid.
Our leadership lack skin in the game with regards to a war with Iran. By skin in the game, I mean as a filter, the way Nassim Taleb intended his book of the same name to be interpreted. According to Taleb, skin in the game is more than just one-sided incentives. If one wishes to benefit from risks, they must also be in a position where they face the negative consequences of the risk as well. Taleb uses the example of ancient politician-generals: if a leader wished to take his country to war, he often served on the front lines. Such a proposition certainly changes the calculus of risk-taking. Bad tacticians tended to exit the gene pool prematurely. Sadly, neither Trump or Bolton will have to be in a risky position if we start a war with Iran, nor will they have the street cred of leaders who at least had military skin in the game at some point in the past. In fact, both avoided combat in Vietnam.
In sum, our leadership does not have proper alignment of potential benefits vs. personal risk with regard to a conflict with Iran. This should be reason for pause.
Now let’s consider the costs for the rest of us. Ben Shapiro claims that if Iran were to go to full-scale war with the United States, “that war lasts not particularly long”. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) believes a war with Iran would take “two strikes — the first strike and the last strike.” (For context, Ben Shapiro has no military experience, while Tom Cotton at least served in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Leaders will predict a conflict will take this many troops, will last this long, will cost this much, but should we really have much faith in our war forecasting? Many thought World War I would only last a few months. Few could foresee the ensuing carnage brought on by escalation and new technologies. Who predicted the North Vietnamese would withstand U.S. military might long enough to remain in power? We thought we could create an effective democracy in Iraq. Instead, we created a power vacuum for groups like ISIS to exploit. How many history lessons do we need to tell us that war is unpredictable? A conflict with Iran may be similar to previous regime change wars or entirely different, but the point is this: we simply have no way of knowing how many lives could be lost and how many dollars will be spent.
Let me be clear: not knowing the cost is not an argument against war. Sometimes war is necessary and must be fought no matter the cost. But the fact that there can be an immense cost that we have no way of predicting should again give us pause before we commit to a path where the potential downsides are much riskier than any upside we may get. For example, if a country is fighting to preserve itself, the upside is generally greater than the downside because people value sovereignty and their homelands even if the fight is gruesome. A country that starts a conflict halfway across the world with a regional power unable to pose a direct threat exposes itself to a multitude of ways things could go wrong without an expected payoff large enough to justify the risks.
There are too many unknown variables with unknown consequences without a clear, just payoff in sight. What cards do the Iranians have up their sleeve? Mainstream politicians and commentators seem to forget the possibility that the Iranians observed our invasion of Iraq and have attempted to come up with some sort of plan to slow us down. Surely it is a disastrous mistake to not assume our enemies are cunning and armed with the greatest motivation — survival. Picture the Iranian leadership as a cornered animal. A cornered animal will fight tooth and nail to survive when there’s no means for escape. Does the Iranian leadership realistically have escape routes if the U.S. declares war? Probably not, given there aren’t many safe havens for authoritarian regimes once they’ve been ousted. Just ask Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.
And then there are other considerations. Will China and Russia get involved? Who would step into the shoes of the toppled regime? Will we be alienating ourselves further from our allies? Will other regimes double down in their nuclear pursuits as an insurance policy? Will we create new enemies amongst the Iranian people? How will we finance the war, especially on top of recently passed tax cuts? More reasons for pause.
Is it just?
The United States was founded on principles of freedom and self-determination. Our culture that allows people to choose how to live their lives, regardless of race, religion, creed, or politics, is one of our greatest strengths. People from around the world have looked to the United States as a source for good in a world that can be increasingly dark. It doesn’t seem particularly fair of us to espouse these values, only to then try and force others to accept our way of life against their will, often by violent means. As a sovereign nation, Iran should have the right to determine its own leadership. It is not our place to impose our will on others at the barrel of a gun, especially when we don’t have to live with the consequences of life in a country with a fallen government.
Every time we fail to live up to our values, we damage our invaluable reputation as a force for good. When we force ourselves on others for our own benefit, we lose a piece of who we are. Our hypocrisy creates terrorists. Our allies don’t know whether to trust or fear us. Our long-term national security is threatened when we isolate ourselves.
Are there alternatives?
Yes! First, not doing something is actually a choice. It may not seem like avoiding a regime change war with Iran is action, but it actually takes more discipline to do nothing in this case rather than something. Not making a bad decision is oftentimes just as beneficial as making a good decision. Avoiding sugary foods like Twinkies is better for you than just exercising. Avoiding unjust, risky regime change wars is better for you than attempting “proactive” foreign policy.
Okay, but what else can we do? For starters, we can continue the course. Not trading with a corrupt regime that represses its people is a justifiable position and puts pressure on the Iranian government (although admittedly it’s less justifiable when we continue to trade with the Saudi Arabians). The Iranian people are already protesting their regime and have been for years because of economic woes and authoritarianism. All parties are better off if the Iranian people decide their future for themselves. We may even be able to make an ally out of a former enemy if we stay out of their affairs.
Now is the time for longer-term thinking and restraint. When the stakes are this high, we cannot afford to take such a risk with very little in terms of clear, just payoffs. I urge our leaders to exercise caution, and I ask my fellow citizens to speak up. It is not weakness, but a sign of the greatest strength to wield our immense power with justice and restraint.