The American public’s support for an attack on Iran will be widespread but short-lived
Memories of the war in Iraq are haunting the debate on a military operation – American or Israeli - against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
For many of its opponents, the talk of an imminent American or Israeli attack seems like a recurring nightmare. “It’s just like Iraq,” NBC commentator Chris Matthews said this week. “If this all feels familiar, that because it is,” wrote Simon Tisdall in the Guardian. “In din over Iran, echoes of Iraq war,” was the headline of a front-page story in the New York Times last week.
“How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well?” Peter Beinart asked in the Daily Beast.
It’s 2002/2003 all over again, so this thinking goes, because once again a Muslim country in the Middle East is being portrayed as a dire threat to the United States. Once again its’ leaders are described as murderous lunatics. Once again they are purported to have links to Al-Qaeda. Once again mountains of bogus evidence are whipping up paranoid hysteria. Once again Republican leaders, driven by end-of-days Evangelicals and resurgent conservative hawks, are beating the war drums and pushing the US, incredibly, to yet another war.
And once again, though currently mentioned mostly by inference and on the sidelines, Israel and the Jewish lobby are “playing the media like a Stradivarius” as one pundit wrote this week. What was once the highly controversial and justifiably criticized contention of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer about the Jewish lobby’s role in the War in Iraq is now receiving a kind of retroactive confirmation, in the eyes of Iran critics, by the bellicose statements of Republican presidential candidates about the need to “save Israel” and by the highly-public disagreement between Israel and the Americans in which the aggressive former is egging on the hesitant latter.
Still, you might point out correctly, these historical associations by people opposed to a war with Iran represent only a minority of American public opinion, no more than a third. In a recent poll carried out by Pew Research, 58% of Americans expressed support for American military attack on Iran if sanctions fail, compared to only 30% who oppose it. And asked what position the US should take if it is Israel that attacked Iran, only 5% said America should oppose such a move, compared to 39% who said that America should support Israel and 51% who said that Washington should stay neutral, which could be interpreted to say that 90% per cent of Americans are against any intervention to stop Israel from attacking.
But herein lays the most dangerous similarity to the Iraq war: the high degree of support that it enjoyed at its outset and the rapid switch to widespread opposition. In April 2003, more than 70% of Americans supported the war in Iraq; within 9 months, that figure dipped below 50%; several months later, it was closer to a third, where it has stayed ever since. And unless an attack on Iran is a miraculous one-shot success like Entebbe or the 1981 bombing of Osiraq - that is the direction that American public opinion is likely to take in the case of Iran as well.
This, after all, is the nature of the beast. War, in theory, always looks much more attractive than it does in practice - a quick fix to an insolvable problem. Most people find it difficult to take into account neither the almost inevitable complications that arise in the conduct of war, nor to foresee the grief of casualties or the anguish of setback. More than 80% of Israelis supported the first Lebanon War, but within slightly more than a year that figure was cut in half. More than 90% supported the second Lebanon war, but within a few short months public opinion viewed it as one of the most unsuccessful operations in Israel’s history, one that ultimately ended Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s career.
An attack on Iran, American or Israeli, will most likely create chaos of currently unpredictable and possibly unprecedented proportions in the Middle East, including but not limited to: a massive retaliatory campaign Israel, regional conflicts, more upheaval in the Arab world, and, judging by the tone of Russian President Putin’s recent warnings, the first major confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the end of the Cold War.
America would be denounced once again as an enemy of Islam. Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, could become targets of both military and terrorist operations throughout the world. And, perhaps more importantly for our purposes, the world’s oil supplies would probably be disrupted in a way that will lead to a spectacular spike in oil prices. If the price of $5 a gallon is currently being portrayed in America as economic purgatory, what would happen if Americans are plunged into the hell of truly unaffordable gasoline coupled with endless queues at gas stations similar to those during the Arab oil boycott in the wake of the Yom Kippur war?
But you are mixing apples and oranges, one might say, because an American attack on Iran is a completely different scenario from an Israeli attack. That, of course, is true on the battlefield and in the international diplomatic arena – but not necessarily in the court of American public opinion.
Israel’s point of pride has always been that it does its fighting for itself and that it alone bears the burden for its operations. As Prime Minister Netanyahu told the US Congress last May: “You don't need to send American troops to defend Israel. We defend ourselves.” But that long-held principle will not hold true if America becomes engulfed in a war precipitated by an Israeli military operation or if America decides to go it alone. In fact, it is more likely that the American public’s support for a war with Iran would be deeper and more durable if it is their own country and their own troops that Americans are rooting for. Support for Israel, one suspects, might wear thin very quickly if it seen as having dragged America, against its will and better judgment, into a confrontation in the Middle East and, much worse, if in the process it has wrought economic catastrophe on America and the West.
In an ideal world, public opinion should not be a factor in the decision whether to go to war or not, but American public opinion is a strategic asset of Israel that needs to be factored into any strategic equation. It is in this context, with a view ahead, that Israel would do well to restrain its public expressions of dissatisfaction with what it perceives as the Obama Administration’s wavering. And it is with this in mind that one can foresee how exuberant exhortations of Republican presidential candidates for a confrontation with Iran “for our best ally Israel” will gradually undergo a metamorphosis from a welcomed expression of support, as they are for many now, to a retroactive indictment of complicity.
And while it is this writer’s opinion that Iran is infinitely more dangerous than Iraq ever was and that it is in everyone’s best interest that America should attack Iran, rather than Israel –there is no doubt that Chekhov’s principle of a gun that is placed on the table in the first act will be fired in the third will apply here as well. Once hostilities start, the current grumblings of an Iraq war redux will come back to haunt Israel and the American Jewish community. And this time around, it will be much harder to deny that it was Israel who pushed America to war.
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