Beware the Iran Hawks

The hawks in Congress, White House and Pentagon who want President Bush to bomb Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program need to be reminded why President Johnson turned a deaf ear to the hawks of his day who wanted him to bomb North Korea to retaliate for its hi-jacking of the U. S. Navy spy ship Pueblo on the high seas in 1968.

Johnson said the last thing his generals and admirals wanted was another war on top of the one they were waging so unsuccessfully in Vietnam. Then, as now in Iraq, the armed services found themselves in a quagmire and strained to fill their ranks. The Vietnam surge reached half a million U. S. troops on the ground in South Vietnam but we still could not win that asymmetric war. Also, in another parallel with Iraq, Johnson feared going to war against another country in the region would drag other nations into the conflict.

“What’s wrong in telling the North Koreans they must get the ship to us by a certain date or face the consequences?” then CIA director Richard Helms asked Johnson in 1968 in discussing how to avenge North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo, according to formerly top secret papers declassified by the State Department.

“The simple answer to that is that we do not want a war with the Chinese and the Soviets,” Johnson replied.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are far more cautious about going to war than the general public realizes because they know how easy it is to get into one and how hard it is to get out, recoiled from the idea of further stretching their forces to fight a brand new war in Asia. Wrote the late Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. in his book, “On Watch:”

“The most vivid illustration that the United States was not even in a position to fight two half-wars, much less a half war and a whole one, was the military consensus supporting a passive American response to the North Korean capture of the Navy’s intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo. I have heard Tom Moorer, who was chief of Naval Operations at the time, say there was a strong sentiment within the National Security Council for an active response to Pueblo’s capture but that the JCS view was that the South Vietnam half-war deprived the U. S. of the power to wage, or even plausibly threaten, a second half-war against North Korea.” Moorer said that in 1968 when the United States military had 3.5 million men and women on active duty compared to 1.4 million today!

I’ll bet if the House or Senate armed services committee called in today’s chiefs and asked them if it made sense to attack Iran right now their answer would be hell no. Sure. The Pentagon has drafted contingency plans for attacking Iran. But there are contingency plans for attacking any likely enemy. Those thick papers just gather dust in the Pentagon.

Let’s look at the record. No one with power thought through the consequences of invading Iraq before Bush went and did it. Certainly not Bush himself; nor Vice President Dick Cheney; nor theater commander, Gen. Tommy Franks; nor Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow neo-cons; nor the majority of Congress; nor most of the nation’s press. Franks’ slide show of August, 2002 was tragically farcical for its lack of foresight. Franks’ Central Command figured 5,000 U. S. troops would be enough to keep law and order in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell. (See the slides obtained by the National Security Archive.)

Before it’s too late, Congress should ask Bush administration executives and Pentagon generals and admirals such questions as these about Iran:

* How can you bomb anything nuclear in Iran without spewing radioactive debris into the atmosphere and poisoning it for much of the world? Are you ready for the firestorm of international condemnation that would ensue?

* Do you realize that Iran would be a much bigger quagmire than Iraq for the American military? The CIA’s dispassionate World Factbook for 2007 gives Iran’s military aged population, 18 to 49, as 36 million compared to Iraq’s 11.5 million. Iran is four times the size of Iraq, 1.65 million square kilometers vs. 437,072 square kilometers. Iran has plenty of reserves of foreign exchange and gold to buy the latest weapons, $58.5 billion compared to Iraq’s $15.6 billion. The skies over Iran would thus be far from safe for American helicopters and low flying aircraft because Iran can afford to buy the latest anti-aircraft missiles to shoot them down.

* Where would the additional U. S. military manpower come from if Bush invaded Iran? Just to stay in the fight in Iraq the armed services, particularly the Army, has had to break its moral contracts with thousands of soldiers and extend their tours. Would the draft have to be reinstated? Congress should ask the President and Joint Chiefs that question long before Bush reaches the point of no return on attacking Iran.

I asked Sen. Joseph Biden, Del., chairman of Senate Foreign Relations and Democratic Presidential candidate at the Sperling luncheon last Thursday whether there was any way to avoid spewing nuclear debris into the air if the United States bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities. Also whether taking on Iran while U. S. forces were bogged down in Iraq was feasible. His answer struck me as the right one: “No and no.”

George Wilson is a veteran national security journalist.

This article was first published by the National Journal on June 22, 2007.