Politics & Policy

Iran Isn’t Iraq, and This Isn’t 2003

Army Day military parade in Tehran, April 2014. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty)
Instead of rehashing the Iraq War, let’s face today’s much more serious threat from Iran.

You have to give the media credit for trying.

Last week saw a manufactured debate about a manufactured subject — whether our country should have invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what we know in 2015 about the course of events in the Middle East. But there’s a reason why the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” contains more than a kernel of truth — because Monday-morning quarterbacking, however nice it might make others feel, doesn’t change the past one whit.

In the real world, presidents have to play the hand of cards they are dealt. President Bush did just that, operating off the information he had, and he did it well. Unlike President Obama — who decided to withdraw our forces in Iraq precipitously, endearing himself to war-weary voters but creating a vacuum for terrorists — President Bush kept our country safe after 9/11, and Americans appreciate him for it. I supported his decision to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and I will not second-guess him now even for one minute.

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But if the media are going to play these games, then let me add a few. I’m pretty sure that President Roosevelt would have increased patrols around Oahu on the morning of December 7, 1941. I don’t think King Philip II of Spain would have sent his Armada into the English Channel in the summer of 1588. And I’m fairly certain that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee would not have sold Babe Ruth’s contract rights to the New York Yankees.

But the more important question is not how Hillary Clinton and others have changed their minds on Iraq; it’s how she and the president she worked for have learned the wrong lesson from that conflict. Because this decade’s answer to an Iraqi regime that did not in reality possess large numbers of chemical and biological weapons is not to leave Iran within easy striking distance of a nuclear bomb.

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Consider for a moment the October 2002 remarks of a then-unknown state senator named Barack Obama. Prior to the Iraq conflict, the future president said he did not oppose all wars, just “dumb wars.” He believed that “Saddam [Hussein] poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military [is] a fraction of its former strength,” and that the international community could contain what he considered a “petty dictator.”

Contrast his comments about Iraq then to the situation in Iran now. Iran refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist; its leaders have talked about “eliminating” the state. Just last week, President Obama himself called Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism” for fomenting rebellion within the Middle East and elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Iran could receive somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion [just for] signing the agreement” — an economic boon and a funding source for more new munitions. Yet as it is, Iran has not lacked for military strength: The Russian military just sold Iran a passel of new missiles — belying the belief that this rogue regime can be easily contained.

Iran is much more of a threat now than Iraq was then. But President Obama seems ready to pay any price to get a deal — any deal — out of Iran.

In short, Iran is much more of a threat now than Iraq was then. But President Obama seems ready to pay any price to get a deal — any deal — out of Iran. So unwilling to contemplate a military engagement in the Middle East is he, he appears scared of his shadow. Yet if the shadow of Barack Obama circa 2002 were around today, he would not call Iran a “dumb war.” To the contrary, he might even consider taking the military option off the table to be, well, dumb.

I don’t relish this criticism, nor the thought of armed conflict with Iran. I deprecate war in all its forms and consider it the ultimate last resort. But a last resort it must always remain.

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It’s possible to over-learn the lessons of history. In retrospect, it’s easy to argue that Britain, France, and the United States should have fought German and Italian aggression in Europe well before Hitler invaded Poland. But after the horrors of Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Somme, Neville Chamberlain and his contemporaries so feared the outbreak of another Great War that for years they handsomely rewarded aggression in their midst — setting the stage for an even bloodier global conflict.

#related#That’s why the media hype of the past week hasn’t just been irrelevant; in many respects, the Iraq obsession is dangerous. Every minute we spend arguing about what should, could, or would have happened in Iraq a dozen years ago is a minute our nation is not talking about what must happen about Iran now. We ignore the current threat — and the greater threat — at our peril.

A generation ago, Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 using the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” The ongoing parlor game over Iraq now echoes a song remade during that era: “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” But our country needs to stop fixating over the debates of the past — and the candidates of the past. The better question is whether we have learned the right lessons from the past, and how they affect the policies of the present. Because if we fail to stop the Iranian regime now, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could greatly darken our children’s future.

— Bobby Jindal is the governor of Louisiana.


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