The case for bombing Iran (instead of Syria)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’ve been opposing Syria intervention, but that seems to be a lost cause. This is not because I’m wrong, but because of some twisted logic that goes like this:  We must bomb Syria — or we will look weak to Iran.

To recap, since Islamists would likely take over in the event of regime change, we have no real interest in actually toppling Assad. As such, we seem to have settled on conducting a limited, punitive, “surgical” strike that would send a message we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. In other words, symbolism over substance.

But whom are we sending the message to? Assad, sure — except we aren’t 100 percent sure he ordered the use of chemical weapons. We have more evidence Iran is expanding uranium enrichment than that Assad ordered the attack. And we have no way of knowing if hitting him will deter or encourage the further use of them. Of course, you could argue a strike would send a message to the “international community,” whoever that is, I guess.

Most importantly, we are told that since President Obama warned against crossing a “red line,” not doing something — anything — would invite future provocations from Iran.

“If carried out effectively,” the New York Times noted yesterday, “the strikes may also send a signal to Iran that the White House is prepared to back up its words, no small consideration for an administration that has proclaimed that the use of military force remains an option if the leadership in Iran insists on fielding a nuclear weapon.” (This was the second paragraph, by the way.)

Michael Totten explained it this way:

“If Obama doesn’t enforce this, he’ll also lose credibility on the other red line he’s drawn in the Middle East—the one against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

He desperately wants to convince Iran to abandon that program without going to war. The only way that’s even remotely possible, however unlikely, is if the Iranian government believes he’ll declare war if it doesn’t stop at some point. So if Assad gets to step over his red line, Tehran’s rulers will have every reason to believe they can step over theirs.”

American Enterprise Institute’s resident scholar Michael Rubin put it this way in a video: “Credibility matters. What happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria…Once President Obama issued a red line,” Rubin continued, “he essentially put American credibility at stake. Every rogue regime around the world is going to see if the U.S. … is a paper tiger.”

This, of course, is a sort of Rube Goldberg Machine. I’d just as soon we stay home, but if we’re going to do this in Syria anyway —  simply to make a point to Iran — why not just eliminate the middle man and go after Iran’s nuclear program once and for all?

After all, Iran isn’t the Soviet Union and this isn’t the 1960s, so if this is going to be war — as so many are clamping for — why does it have to be a “surrogate” war? Since we don’t want to topple Assad, why not send a message  to the intended recipient?

Destroying Iran’s nuclear ambitions would have many of the same potential downsides as a “surgical” strike in Syria. For example, in either instance, we could get sucked into a shooting war with boots on the ground. And in either scenario, Iran might retaliate against us. As George Packer argued in a hypothetical conversation with himself, bombing Syria “could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that?”

This is risky business that I’d just as soon avoid. But unlike the purely symbolic move in Syria, taking out Iran’s nuclear ambitions would at least have a tangible upside. If we’re going to get sucked into war anyway, we might as well make the world a safer place in the process.

Matt K. Lewis