Fifteen years ago this fall, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, one of the most compelling public cases for war came not from President George W. Bush or his backers on Capitol Hill, but from a wonky book written by a former C.I.A. analyst that landed, improbably, on best-seller lists and nightstands across Washington. Ken Pollack, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, argued soberly but forcefully that a U.S.-led military assault to remove Saddam Hussein was necessary and affordable, what he called “our best option—or at least our least bad option.” The book’s title, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” was less nuanced but more memorable than Pollack’s analysis, which acknowledged the risk of trading “the threat of a nuclear armed Saddam for the threat of an Iraq in chaos and civil war.”
The book quickly became the intellectual foundation for proponents of the Iraq War, many of whom, unlike Pollack, knew nothing about Iraq. Democratic politicians found an excuse to avoid opposing the President, a year after the 9/11 attacks. Skeptics were forced to reckon with an expert endorsement of the Administration’s shoddy intelligence. Like the decision to invade Iraq, the book has not aged well.
These days, it is hard not to think back to 2002. Now, as then, a new Administration seems to have come into office with a Middle Eastern country in its crosshairs: this time, it is Iraq’s neighbor, Iran. Now, as then, a President is making increasingly menacing threats and politicizing intelligence to fit alternative facts. And now, as then, some of the same influential voices outside the Administration will play a crucial role in either legitimizing or discrediting decisions that risk another unnecessary and reckless war.
For the last decade, advocates of the Iraq War from both parties have worn scarlet letters around Washington but few have suffered professionally, even after “Mission Accomplished” turned into a brutal sectarian conflict that cost trillions of dollars, claimed the lives of more than forty-five hundred Americans and many times that number of Iraqis (most of them civilians), and badly damaged the United States’ moral and strategic authority in the world.
But several of the Iraq War’s most prominent proponents have experienced a renaissance of sorts after voicing early, principled, and fervent opposition to Trump—whose populist rhetoric and isolationist views they found distasteful. As a group, they share right-leaning politics, hawkish foreign-policy views, and strong support for the invasion of Iraq—and they have, to their credit, emerged as some of the most unexpected and effective opposition voices.
David Frum coined George W. Bush’s infamous phrase “axis of evil,” in the speech that laid a predicate for war. Today his anti-Trump essays in The Atlantic are among the most trenchant and eloquent anywhere. Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote on the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War that its proponents had “no need to repent,” has relentlessly assaulted Trump’s dysfunctional management of national security on television, in print, and on Twitter.
William Kristol, the founder of the Weekly Standard, predicted, in 2003, that Iraq War’s proponents would be “vindicated” by the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, and argued just two years ago that “we were right to fight in Iraq.” More recently, he has taken Trump to task for everything from his troubling ties to Russia to his mishandling of North Korea.
And Bret Stephens was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post when, in 2003, it named one of the Iraq War’s chief architects, Paul Wolfowitz, “man of the year,” trumpeting his role as “principal author” of the doctrine of preëmptive war that would “underpin U.S. action against other rogue states.” As a longtime Wall Street Journal columnist, he continued to defend the evidentiary basis for war with Iraq long after it was discredited, but his attacks on Trump reportedly fell out of favor with the paper’s management, and he decamped earlier this year to the New York Times.
Today, these and other “Never Trump” Republicans have found common cause with the left-leaning anti-Trump “resistance,” who devour and distribute their media appearances with a fervor that would have seemed impossible pre-Trump. This alignment of convenience and conviction will face a severe test in the coming months, over the looming prospect of yet another potential conflict in the Middle East. These commentators share another common view: longstanding support for a more belligerent posture toward Iran, including military confrontation, regime change, or both.
Opposition to Trump among Iraq War proponents was always partly rooted in the President’s aversion to activism abroad. They have been right to decry Trump’s abdication of U.S. leadership, including his disregard for human rights, his belittling of our alliances, and his kowtowing to Vladimir Putin. But as a candidate, Trump’s stated suspicion of military adventurism, particularly in the Middle East, had been one of his most—and, arguably, few—rational foreign-policy stances. As President, however, Trump has escalated military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, often without articulating a strategy and without public debate. In the case of Iran, while a formal policy “review” is still ongoing, Trump’s own proclivity for bluster, and apparent obsession with undoing whatever President Obama did, is already leading in a dangerous direction.
Trump has long decried the nuclear deal with Iran as the “worst in history.” In July, he grudgingly certified to Congress that Iran is implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the formal name of the deal, from 2015, which degraded Iran’s nuclear program, and increased the amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a weapon to more than a year, in exchange for sanctions relief. But Trump also said, in July, that he believes Iran is not complying with the deal “in spirit.” In another echo of 2002, Trump has reportedly assigned a team to build a case against the deal, regardless of what the intelligence might indicate, and despite the fact that the rest of the world has concluded that Iran is honoring its commitments. International inspectors, as recently as Wednesday, have reiterated an opinion that is shared by Trump’s own State Department: that Iran is not violating the agreement.
There are many paths that Trump could take to deliver a blow to the nuclear deal and trigger a crisis with Iran. Two deadlines are looming this fall: in September, the U.S. must issue a waiver for sanctions suspended under the J.C.P.O.A.; in October, the U.S. has to certify that Iran is abiding by the agreement. Trump could decline to certify Iran’s compliance; re-impose sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal; dramatically increase sanctions on Iran for reasons unrelated to its nuclear program; or demand that monitors be allowed to visit to sensitive Iranian military sites, in the absence of credible evidence of wrong-doing, a step that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, threatened this week.
From there, the path to conflict, intentional or otherwise, is easy to imagine. Already, Trump has severed high-level diplomatic contact between the two countries, which are necessary to address misunderstandings and prevent small disputes from becoming large ones. Meanwhile, talk of promoting regime change in Tehran—among Republicans on Capitol Hill, in conservative Washington policy circles, and even from some Trump Administration officials—gives Iran’s already paranoid regime more justification to worry. If Trump imposes new sanctions, Iran could violate its commitments under the nuclear agreement. A clash between U.S. military advisers and Iranian fighters who are already operating in close proximity in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria could take place. Or, as has happened in the past, Iranian naval vessels could challenge U.S. warships in the narrow waterways around the Arabian Peninsula.
In any of these scenarios, Trump would be incentivized to lash out at Tehran, perhaps through direct military action. Some foreign-policy experts would cheer him, as they did when he fired Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian military after its appalling chemical-weapons attack earlier this year. Iran, faced with its own political pressures and suspicion of U.S. intentions, almost certainly would retaliate, most likely in asymmetric fashion, in parts of the region where Iran has advantages and U.S. interests or forces are vulnerable. What would happen next is hard to predict and even harder to control.
Some take comfort in the fact that Trump’s national-security team would push back against ill-advised military steps. So far, they have persuaded Trump to leave the nuclear deal in place and removed three of the most vocal Iran hawks from the National Security Council. But the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who was recently described as having a “33-year grudge against Iran”; H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser; and John Kelly, the new chief of staff, each commanded troops in Iraq when Iran was supplying its proxy militias with roadside bombs that killed hundreds of Americans. Whatever they may have done on other issues to curb Trump’s worst impulses, on Iran, they may not be voices for restraint.
In short, deliberately undermining the nuclear deal risks sparking a confrontation. And for what? The most compelling rationale for conflict with Iran—its potential ability to obtain a nuclear weapon—was removed by the agreement. A hundred and fifty international monitors are carrying out inspections that will allow the world to know if Iran tries to cheat.
Clearly, the Iranian regime remains a source of instability in the Middle East and has brutalized its own people. Sanctions and assistance to Iran’s rivals should continue to be used to restrain Tehran, but there is every reason to believe that torpedoing the nuclear deal or prompting military escalation would only make things worse. Having worked on these issues under the President Obama, who championed the nuclear deal, and whose rise was fuelled by his opposition to the war in Iraq, our position is no surprise. The more interesting question now is what those Trump critics who supported the Iraq War will do. Most have been conspicuously quiet on this topic, despite their opposition to the nuclear deal and past support for muscular action.
Given all they have written about the new Administration’s incompetence and duplicity, will they jump on the bandwagon of another unnecessary conflict, this time under the authority of a President they have deemed unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief? We sought their current views. Most were still thinking through their approach, or else were unwilling to tip their hand.
Before the deal, Boot had called a “bombing campaign” the “only credible option” for dealing with Iran, and he later laid out his opposition to the J.C.P.O.A. in an article entitled “Why is the Iran deal bad? Think North Korea.” He told us by e-mail that Trump should be “doing more to contain the growth of Iranian power in the Middle East” but acknowledged that such confrontations are a “tricky business that requires a highly competent Commander-in-Chief who will not run reckless risks. That is not a description that applies to Trump.” He also said that the President “will be making a mistake if he pulls out of the J.C.P.O.A. absent proof of Iranian cheating, which, as far as I know, does not currently exist.”
Frum said that he preferred to convey his views on Trump unravelling the deal in The Atlantic, but rejected a comparison to 2002, arguing it would be hard to imagine “Trump striking out in October, 2017—with no preliminary work to build support, zero Democratic buy-in, unsure even of his own party.” William Kristol, who once wrote that it was “long since time for the United States to speak to [the Iranian] regime in the language it understands—force,” and entitled an article about the J.C.P.O.A. “A Very Good Deal—for Iran,” declined to comment. Bret Stephens, who wrote, on the deal’s one-year anniversary, that “what diplomats call” the J.C.P.O.A. is “known to the rest of us as the Disastrous Iran Deal,” said that he “wrestles with the dilemma” of a policy he may support but a President he’s not sure he trusts to implement it.
“Even the best advice, if put through a flawed vessel, is going to come out wrong on the other side,” he said. “And to me, the lesson of Iraq is that implementation is nine-tenths of policy. In theory, I might argue we should get out, negotiate a better deal, use a combination of sanctions and pressure to reweight our lever, but Iraq tells you that you have to be extremely careful about thinking through consequences ahead of time…. Among the many reasons the Trump Presidency depresses me is that I can’t trust him to carry out those few points of his agenda on which I actually happen to agree.”
The stakes are high—as reckless and unsettling as Trump’s Presidency has been thus far, he has yet to make a mistake anywhere near as costly as the Iraq War. If the proponents of that war support Trump’s apparent willingness to either risk or seek war, they would be giving the Administration’s dangerous approach credibility and Congress a rationale to go along. A more consistent response, given their criticism of Trump, would be to publicly acknowledge that an attempt by this Administration to confront Iran could have dangerous consequences, or that the President can’t be trusted to manage it effectively.
For commentators still considering their position—and members of Congress who may soon be compelled to voice their own—the months leading up to the Iraq War offer a cautionary tale. In October, 2002, about a month after Pollack’s book was published, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq with nearly seventy per cent of members voting in favor. Many later suffered electoral consequences, disavowed their vote, or have struggled to justify it ever since.
Only a year after the invasion of Iraq, Pollack published a book on Iran. This time, he advocated diplomacy to address its nuclear program. In a follow-up, published in 2013, just weeks before a major breakthrough in the Obama Administration’s nuclear negotiations, he argued that deterring a nuclear Iran was preferable to war. He also claimed that his earlier book on Iraq had been “misinterpreted” by those who “read nothing but the subtitle or cherry-picked lines from it.”
In recent weeks, Pollack told us that while he favors a more assertive approach to counter Iran’s regional meddling, he believes it would be a mistake to jeopardize the nuclear deal or risk a major conflict. In describing his intellectual journey, Pollack is the first to acknowledge the burden he carries from the Iraq precedent. No one should blame, or credit, those without an official position or authority for any major policy decision. That responsibility ultimately rests with the President we elect. Nor should anyone assume that advice can be given, or heeded, without consequence, particularly if it would once again urge the country down a path to war.