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The Iraq War was a disaster; onward to Iran.

Wednesday evening I went to Congressman Howard Berman's town hall meeting, as did about 1000 other constituents.  Berman was chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs until 2009 and is now the ranking member. One early question from the audience was whether, with the Iraq War now officially over, he regretted his vote to authorize the 2003 invasion.  A short summary of his somewhat agonized and internally inconsistent answer:  Yes, but it was the right vote at the time based on the facts as I understood them.  Those facts were, he said, that Saddam had biological and chemical weapons and had restarted work to develop nuclear weapons.  He was confident that was true especially because the guy who went there after the invasion and ran the team that eventually found zero WMDs, Charles Duelfer, assured him before his vote that was all true. 

In response to another question, he said he is beginning to feel that the US cannot achieve stability in Afghanistan next year—or in 5 years or in 10 years—so long as the Taliban have safe sanctuary and support of ISI in Pakistan and that, therefore, maybe we should consider leaving sooner rather than later.  (Enthusiastic applause here.)  

In contrast to these statements, in what seemed to me his cognitive dissonance, Berman opened the meeting by taking personal credit for getting new sanctions on Iran written into the recent National Defense Authorization Act "because we cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons" (just as we could not allow Iraq to have WMDs). The sanctions are designed to shut off the sale and shipment of at least half of Iran's oil, and banking restrictions that will make it difficult for Iran to receive payment for any exports.  In response to questions, Berman expressed great confidence that the Iranian government will yield to these sanctions and give up their nuclear aspirations—i.e., zero probability of the Gulf being closed to oil tanker traffic or an actual shooting war with missiles flying all over the Middle East and US aircraft carriers being sunk.  I hope he's right, but his track record on such judgments does not inspire confidence.

These new Iraq sanctions sounded familiar to me, and I looked up the history of US-Japan relations in 1941.  Along with the UK and Netherlands East Indies, the US initiated an oil embargo against Japan in August 1941.  Since Japan was getting 80% of its oil from the US (we were an exporter then), we presumably thought this pressure would inevitably drive the Japanese government to the negotiating table and agree to leave China and curb its expansionist policies.  The Japanese did come to the negotiating table—but only to gain time for their military to complete plans to invade Indonesia to grab its oil—after neutralizing the US navy.  Those plans were fully developed by October 16 and approved by the Emperor on November 5.  The Japanese attack fleet sailed on November 26 and arrived off Hawaii on December 7.  Quelle surprise, the Japanese decision makers did not see the situation in exactly the same way as the US government thought they rationally must see it.  Instead, they took what they knew was a huge risk, starting a war with the US.

Today, we seem to know as little about the inner workings of Iran as we did in 1941 of the inner workings of Japan.  There is great potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation on both sides here. Consequently, in my opinion, there is a substantial risk that the result of our new sanction regime is going to be worse than Iran having nuclear weapons.  The Guardian reports that Gary Sick seems to agree:

Another flashpoint could come in June, when US sanctions on the trade in Iranian oil come into effect. Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former White House policy adviser now at Columbia University, said such measures were "the equivalent of a military blockade of Iran's oil ports, arguably an act of war".

"The main reason why Iran's putative threat to close the strait of Hormuz was dismissed is because Iran also relies on the strait to export its own oil," Sick wrote in his blog. "But if Iran's oil revenue – 50% of its budget – is cut off, they would have little to lose by striking out at those they hold responsible, including passage through the strait of Hormuz.

"Iran cannot defeat the US navy, but the swarms of cruise missiles they could fire, both from shore and from their fleet of speedboats, could create havoc, as could the flood of mines they could put into the fast-moving waters of the strait."

We should not be contemplating war with Iran. We are no longer powerful enough (if we ever were) to pull this off. We don't have the manpower to invade and control Iran, but it has the manpower to go into Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Successful terrorist attacks in the US, Israel, and elsewhere would skyrocket. The whole Middle East would be in violent turmoil for years or decades. Every other nation would be convinced (if they have not already been convinced) that the only way to avoid attack is to have nuclear weapons (like Pakistan and North Korea, for example). A doubling of world oil prices would finish off the US economy. The American Century would end in flames and death and devastation. Yet it looks as though our official train is building momentum in that direction, and that only the American public might be able put on the brakes.

Why are many of the same people who are so timid about starting trade wars so bold about real wars?

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