As in the lead-up to the Iraq war, U.S. government civilians and the military brass appear divided over the prospect of war with Iran. In a recent interview, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey noted the differences between the U.S. and Israel over policy toward Iran, asserting a preference for containment. Not long after, Dempsey was contradicted by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, claiming that the U.S. and Israel had no differences over Iran. Shapiro’s statement, unlike Dempsey’s, appears motivated by domestic political considerations. Once again, the military is proving more cautious than the civilians in Washington.
In his acclaimed book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, the Washington Post’s respected military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks noted that many in the higher echelons of the U.S. military had reservations about the precipitous use of force in Iraq. He noted:
- Retired army Gen. Frederick Kroesen, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, asked in an article in Army magazine if the U.S invasion plan rested on incorrect assumptions. Army Special Forces Maj. Roger Carstens argued in Proceedings, the professional journal of the Navy, that the Bush administration needed to clearly state its long-term goals for Iraq. In Army Times, an independent newspaper, retired Army Lt. Col. Ralf Zimmerman said it was time for the American people to think through the issue. “Maybe we should have an open public debate over war vs. containment as the proper option when dealing with Iraq,” he cautioned. The message reflected concerns among many senior officers: This was not a military straining to go to war.
The military has been displaying similar anxiety about the prospect of a war with the Islamic Republic. In 2007, the Sunday Times reported that a “generals’ revolt” was taking place due to Vice President Dick Cheney‘s belligerence against Iran. At that time Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, said there was “zero chance” of a war with Iran and put the Bush administration on the defensive when he said there wasn’t enough evidence to back up claims by U.S. intelligence that the Iranians were responsible for supplying insurgents in Iraq. Pace’s tenure as JCoS proved a short one, as he was replaced after serving only two years in office. His opposition to Cheney’s rhetoric appeared to be the main reason. Even four-star Admiral William Fallon was relieved from his duties as head of U.S. Central Command in 2008 after a profile in Esquire magazine highlighted his opposition to a military strike on Iran.
The military’s anti-war push-back has continued apace. The now retired Adm. Mike Mullen recently repeated his 2008 remarks expressing serious opposition to an attack on Iran, urging engagement. The military has been particularly vocal about Israel provoking a war with Iran that it would inevitably be drawn into. Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks (now denied) that Israeli policies were endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were echoed by Gen. David Petraeus. Mark Perry reported in Foreign Policy:
“Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.” But Petraeus wasn’t finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command — or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.
With the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq behind it, the military appears reluctant to embroil itself in a new adventure conceived by politicians in Washington. Civilians in Washington have in the past tried to overcome such barriers by appointing more pliant officers to top positions. It will therefore be worth watching whether Martin Dempsey will show the same steel in resisting Washington hawks as his predecessor did.