Shock and Rue

Ten years ago last week, the US military under President George W. Bush wreaked “Shock and Awe,” the merciless bombardment of Baghdad that launched the invasion of Iraq by an American-led “coalition of the willing.”

Indonesia had harsh words for the United States that time. Most outspoken was then Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, who said, “An arbitrary preemptive war has been waged against a sovereign state — arbitrary because it is without sufficient justification in international law.”

Noting that the invading forces found no weapon of mass destruction, he lamented, “An entire country has been leveled to the ground for no good reason.”

To be sure, the war did some good. It blew away Saddam Hussein the Iraqi tyrant. But at what cost? From the American taxpayer the war exacted some $2 trillion plus billions more for the care of veterans, many of whom have become a social problem. US troop casualties numbered 5,000 killed, many of them in the flower of their youth, plus 150,000 wounded and fallen ill.

The Iraqis suffered one million dead and five million displaced. Even today, they are being killed by the dozens in fierce sectarian strife unknown in the heyday of Saddam.

Yet warmongers in the US and the Middle East want to see a reprise of “Shock and Awe,” this time with the fireballs rising from Teheran. They notably include John Bolton, a Bush era diplomat whose solution to every problem is to throw a bomb at it, and Bibi Netanyahu, the fidgety prime minister of Israel, who would begin an attack on Iran now if assured the US would finish the dirty job.

Bush went to war in Iraq feigning certainty that Saddam had the bomb. This time the war freaks want the US to make a preemptive strike against an Iran that they know doesn’t have a nuclear weapon. An Iran that is merely suspected of intending to have the bomb.

The only similarity between Iraq then and Iran today is their mercurial relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Saddam didn’t want the world to be sure he didn’t have the bomb, so he played hide-and-seek with the IAEA. Iran won’t cooperate with the agency perhaps because it doesn’t want to look like it’s caving in to sanctions.

But America is different today. President Obama is counting costs — the dollars and cents of a slowly recovering economy — while George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from the Clinton years that he squandered in a war of choice. Obama is too cautious to make an arbitrary preemptive strike like Bush did. He would go to war only when a clearly drawn red line is crossed — when Iran actually moves to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

The probability is that Iran will never make that move: its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons — that’s a big factor. Also, the Iranians have probably assessed that Obama’s red line is no bluff. They probably reckon that if they took on the US, they could destroy much of Israel and sink many US naval craft but in the end they would be blasted off the map.

Probability, though, is not certainty. A black swan could be lurking in the depths of one of the Iranian nuclear plants. Some Iranians may be making the bomb without the knowledge and against the wishes of the supreme leader. Khamenei may be disingenuous. But black swans are so called precisely because they’re improbable.

The only certainty is that in the wars of our time, winners suffer as much as losers. Look at Iraq. The war costs are a nightmare of shock and rue. Obama is right to be cautious, to fight a war of necessity only if his hand is forced. But never to launch a war of choice.

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