Opinion: History cautions against rash decisions in Iranian conflict
The Jan. 2 assassination by drone strike of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, puts the U.S. at a dangerous crossroads in our rapidly escalating conflict with Iran. With the stakes so high, it is worth revisiting the paths that led to our two most recent major wars, Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both of which turned out badly. They caution against rash decisions in the current conflict with Iran.
At the time of President John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, there were around 17,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam, ostensibly serving in an advisory capacity. They were there because the United States had decided that international communism was on the march and we had to draw the line in South Vietnam, lest it become the first in a series of cascading dominoes in Southeast Asia. When Lyndon Johnson succeeded JFK, U.S. policy was at a key decision point: should the U.S. increase its military involvement or withdraw?
In August 1964, two U.S. destroyers (the Maddox and the Turner Joy) operating in the Gulf of Tonkin were allegedly attacked, two days apart, in international waters by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. It was later determined that the Turner Joy attack never occurred, and that the first attack was a response to a raid on an off-shore North Vietnamese island by South Vietnamese commandos, who were receiving intelligence support from the Maddox.
Nonetheless, President Johnson used those events as the basis for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, overwhelmingly passed by Congress three days after the supposed attacks occurred, giving the president the authority to take “all necessary measures ... to prevent further aggression” in South Vietnam. With that authority, Johnson escalated the “Americanization“ of the Vietnam War, leading to a military quagmire, the deaths of over 58,000 U.S. troops, major civil unrest at home, and then defeat. But the dominoes did not fall, and we have had normalized relations with a unified Vietnam for over two decades.
President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq resulted from a major intelligence failure regarding Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s argument for the war was that we needed to remove Saddam because he posed a threat to our allies in the region and to the United States.
In October 2002, Congress authorized the invasion of Iraq by a wide bipartisan margin. In March 2003, the invasion was launched with a “shock and awe” wave of air strikes that set the stage for rapid defeat of the Iraqi troops. However, the Bush administration was woefully unprepared to govern the country. As a result, American liberators became occupiers and we are still trapped in the consequences of our victory. Ironically, despite the efforts of a 1,400-person team that combed the country after Saddam’s defeat, no weapons of mass destruction were ever discovered. In his autobiography, Bush said, “no one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons.”
So what can we learn from these two debacles?
First, proceed with caution and careful evaluation of the information supposedly supporting the proposed actions.
Second, do not make snap judgments. Protecting our national honor may feel good in the short run, but it often turns out badly when we do. The mere fact that Iran has been attacking U.S. personnel is not enough to justify escalation. Escalation is appropriate only if it serves a well-articulated strategy aimed at a clear goal. What are we trying to achieve and what difference does it make to our national interest?
Third, Congress should dust off the War Powers Resolution and assert its significant constitutional war-making rights. Congress should bring reasoned judgment, not cheerleading, to the process, as should the American people. We are on the cusp of spending American blood and treasure yet again in the Middle East.
Scott Barker is a civil trial lawyer practicing in Denver for nearly 40 years. He is the author of two books on impeachment: “Impeachment, a Political Sword,” and “The Impeachment Quagmire.”