Generals, officers, and policy staffers knocking their heads together in the office and drawing up war plans are nothing new in the Pentagon. The U.S. military has a plan for every contingency you can possibly think of, from an out-of-the-blue Russian incursion in the Baltics to an internal collapse of the Venezuelan government. So, we should all take the latest report in the New York Times about a hypothetical American military attack on Iran with this context in mind.
Mobilization plans are one thing. But acting on those plans and mobilizing for war is quite another. There are no two ways about it: A U.S. military operation in Iran absent a credible and direct national security threat to the United States, its personnel, or citizens in the region is the very definition of recklessness.
It’s not that the U.S. wouldn’t prevail in a conflict with Iran. Conventionally speaking, the regular Iranian military and the more elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are no match for the U.S. Armed Forces. The concern, rather, is that the costs associated with military action heavily outweigh whatever benefits Washington would receive. The problems Iran poses to the region can’t be resolved through bombing raids or sinking the IRGC’s fleet underneath the Persian Gulf.
Militarily, Tehran has options. It can retaliate through proxies or tactical partners in multiple countries with a certain amount of plausible deniability. Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Palestinian militants in Gaza, Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan — Tehran would be able to utilize all or at least some of these groups as a form of pressure in the event of a John Bolton-like bombing campaign. In such a scenario, the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East actually limit Washington’s flexibility and increase the risk; the more troops the U.S. deploys to the region, the more targets Iran has.
Of course, none of this is new. The Iran-proxy relationship has been studied for decades by regional scholars and intelligence analysts. Tehran may be a weak power compared to the United States, but this doesn’t mean it won’t go down fighting.
What is relatively new, however, is the man who sits in the Oval Office. Unlike previous U.S. presidents, Donald Trump appears reflexively opposed to getting the U.S. deeper into the Middle East. He recoils at the thought of wasting a few more trillion dollars and sacrificing a few thousand additional American lives for the cesspool this region has become — a place with a lot of intractable problems (ethnic conflict, predatory government, jihadists, unaccountable militias, and zero-sum competition between states) and few easy solutions. This is exactly what Trump campaigned against, and it was an issue that resonated with a lot of Americans who were tired of spending so many resources in a theater that seems immune to every dose of medicine.
A preventive attack on Iran would of course be a breaking of this campaign promise from a president who likes to remind Americans that unlike other politicians, he actually does what he says. Strategically, an attack on Iran would be a disaster, dividing the U.S. from its allies and partners and opening a Pandora’s Box that would unfurl a brand new set of crises. But such an action wouldn’t be politically advantageous either; indeed, it would reinforce a belief in the minds of many in the commentariat that Trump doesn’t give orders, but rather follows them from his more hawkish national security advisers.
The best way to prevent this would be to stop whistling past the graveyard. Before the tension with Iran gets any more solidified, President Trump should seriously rethink his course of action. Provoking Iran into a conflict or launching one unilaterally serves the interest of nobody. This is especially true for the United States, a country that should be working to rebalance its force posture after nearly two decades of expensive and counterproductive military commitments in the region.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.