Did The Iraq War Take Military Option For Iran ‘Off The Table’?

081112-F-7823A-160Earlier today I attended the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative‘s conference Iran: Prospects for Regime Change. During the second panel of the day, which focused on U.S. policy options toward Iran, panelists Elliott Abrams, currently of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute both lamented the fact that the Obama administration seemed so disinclined to threaten — let alone take — preventive military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Abrams was particularly incensed that top military leaders like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have been downplaying the possibility of military action against Iran. “Israelis I speak to can’t believe how stupid the U.S. is to take a military strike off the table,” Abrams said.

Left unmentioned, however, was the single most important factor acting to constrain U.S. policy options on Iran, specifically in regard to military force: Iraq. In numerous ways — stress on our military, regional destabilization and unrest, demonstration of the limits of U.S. power and influence, the need to shore up Iraq’s fragile government — the U.S. intervention in Iraq has made the idea of U.S. military action against Iran basically a non-starter for U.S. policymakers.

On the one hand, this oversight wasn’t surprising, as both the stage and the audience were full of people who were involved, both inside and outside of government, in getting the U.S. into a war in Iraq, none of whom have ever shown much interest in grappling honestly with the war’s negative consequences. Indeed, as I wrote in a recent article in the Nation, the close identification with the Iraq debacle is among the reasons that the Project for the New American Century shut down and rebranded as the Foreign Policy Initiative in the first place.

On the other hand, it’s simply analytically irresponsible to not consider Iraq’s impact when wondering aloud why the U.S. military isn’t gunning for a war with Iran. So I asked the panel whether they felt that the Iraq war had limited the U.S.’s options in confronting Iran. Panelist Ray Takeyh of CFR kept his answer short: “Undeniably,” he said. Abrams and Pletka — both major supporters of war with Iraq, just as they are now for strikes on Iran — declined to answer.

So, even though the costs of the Iraq war continue to far outweigh the benefits, keeping us out of war with Iran — so far — would have to be included among the latter.