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William R. Polk: Rushing toward War with Iran

[William R. Polk was Professor of History at the University of Chicago and a Member of the Policy Planning Council under President Kennedy. He is the author, among other books, of Understanding Iraq; Violent Politics, a History of Insurgency, Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism; and, with former Senator George McGovern, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now.]

As the Bush Administration begins its final months in office, it has embarked upon two courses of action that will pre-empt the scope of the incoming Obama or McCain administration and will plague America for years to come.

The first of these is to solidify, literally in concrete, our occupation of Iraq. Despite frequent denials by senior officials and multiple prohibitions exacted by the Congress, we have constructed a string of permanent bases to house our military forces and apparently intend to keep them there.

That is wrong and against our national interests.

We were told some seven years ago that attacking Iraq was justified because Iraq had nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and was about to attack America. Iraq had none of these weapons and could not have attacked America. But our occupation of that little country has done us almost as much damage as though it actually had attacked us:

One and a half million of our soldiers have served in Iraq. Over 4,100 of them are dead and about 400,000 have been wounded. (The official figure of 20,000 wounded is ridiculous: for this year alone, more than 300,000 will need medical treatment.)

Our army is exhausted. To replenish it, we are scraping the bottom of our social barrel and bribing the disadvantaged, some even with criminal records, to enlist; meanwhile, our “best and brightest” middle grade officers, including West Pointers, are quitting in droves.

We have now been in occupation of Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. The occupation already has cost us, even adjusted for inflation, more than the Vietnam war. Every minute costs our country nearly half a million dollars.

To pay for the war, we have borrowed so heavily from abroad (about $3 trillion) and run up our national debt so greatly (about 70%) that our standard of living has deteriorated – our cities have decayed; our transport system is ramshackled; our obsolescent factories are uncompetitive; the airlines hover on the brink of bankruptcy -- fourteen have fallen over the brink while others are cutting back the services on which we have come to depend; with gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, the automobile industry is in serious trouble -- for General Motors to go bankrupt is no longer unthinkable; even giant banks have suffered huge losses and one, Bear Stearns, collapsed.

Everywhere businesses are “downsizing” and so ditching tens of thousands of American workers; new housing starts are down so that the construction industry lost 35,000 jobs in the one month of May this year; 8.5 million workers are unemployed; 5 million have given up looking for work; another 5 million have found only part-time employment; and as prices rise our money is worth less every day.

Our economy is hurting. So is our society.

As property values have declined (some as much as 30%), hundreds of thousands have defaulted on mortgages and, potentially, perhaps 2 million face foreclosure; 37 million Americans have fallen below the poverty line; health care is failing to reach 47 million Americans; and our educational standards have fallen relative even to many “Third World” countries.

The head of our Federal Reserve Board tells us that, bad as it now is, the situation will grow worse -- unemployment will rise and payrolls will shrink.

Why has all this happened? There are several causes but a principal cause is the war in Iraq. It cost about a quarter of our yearly income .

Now we are being told that we must get into a new war -- that Iran is about to attack us and/or Israel with nuclear weapons. That is just what we were told about Iraq. But all our 16 intelligence agencies informed us last November that Iran not only has no nuclear weapons but has no current program to develop them.

President Bush asked for and got a Congressional allocation, a “Presidential Finding,” of $400 million to support political and armed efforts to overthrow the Iranian government. According to reliable sources Amerian special forces are already operating inside Iran. The administration is now advocating a blockade which, in international law, is an act of war. A massive collection of warships, aircraft and missiles is already in place and more are on the way. Can war be far away?

Iran cannot attack us, but if we attack Iran, we will replay the Iraq war -- on a far greater scale. Iran is about three times the size of Iraq and has been preparing to defend itself for years. Whatever they may feel about their government, Iranians are a proud and nationalistic people. They have bitter memories of generations of British, Russian and American espionage, invasion and dominance. If we invade their country, they will fight.

How would war with Iran affect us?

First, while we could probably destroy their factories, their army and even their cities with air strikes, air strikes alone would not destroy all their nuclear installations so we would almost certainly invade with ground troops. Then the real war – the guerrilla war -- would begin. Unlike Iraq in 2003, Iran is ready to resist. It has about 150,000 dedicated and well equipped national guardsmen. Predictably, the wounded and killed Americans would amount to several times what we suffered in Iraq.

Second, an attack would almost certainly halt the 8% of the world’s energy produced by Iran. Moreover, responding to our attack, the Iranians would counterattack shipping on the Gulf with their fleet of rocket- and bomb-equipped speedboats and submarines. These attacks might be suicidal but they would almost certainly be able to stop or substantially diminish the 40% of the world’s energy that flows down the Gulf. The price of energy would soar. As a result of the Iraq war, it climbed from c. $25/bbl to c. $150/bbl; experts predict that the price would double or even triple. Some believe it would go out of sight. That would destroy the good life we have struggled for generations to achieve and plunge us into a depression from which even our grandchildren would struggle to escape.

Third, an attack on Iran would be regarded as aggression and would severely damage what remains of the favorable image of America throughout the world and would further encourage anti-American jihadi movements throughout the Islamic world. Americans could expect counter-attacks here at home.

Fourth, while an American or Israeli attack might temporarily slow down or even stop the development of nuclear technology in Iran and perhaps overthrow its government, it would make any future Iranian government determined to acquire nuclear weapons to protect their country from us. In repeated public statements from the President, the Vice President and their neoconservative advisers and in the official 2005 “United States National Security Doctrine,” we have told Iran that we would attack it. Can we be so blind as not to see that an attack on Iran would be self-defeating, ensuring precisely what we seek to avoid, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran? We must not allow this catastrophe to happen.