Has the war with Iran already started?

If Bush was once Lyndon Johnson and Iraq Vietnam, the president will now become Richard Nixon and Iran will serve as neighboring Cambodia.

By Shmuel Rosner


Tevet 26, 5767

My latest Slate article (published just before the weekend) deals with the aftermath of President Bush's speech, and asks whether it amounted to a declaration of war against Iran. You can read the piece in full here, or just a couple of paragraphs here:

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., spotted it. At the end of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Biden looked sternly at the secretary and made one last point: "If the president concluded he had to invade Iran ... or Syria in pursuit of these networks, I believe the present authorization granted the president to use force in Iraq does not cover that and he does need congressional authority to do that ... I just want to set that marker."

So, the marker was set, but on the ground, events were already moving ahead of it. On Thursday, U.S. forces raided Iranian targets in Irbil, Iraq, and detained five Iranian officials. As he mentioned in Wednesday night's speech, President Bush has ordered a second aircraft carrier, along with its support ships, to the Gulf. "Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges," said the president. "This begins with addressing Iran and Syria."

No doubt old comparisons will soon be made: If Bush was once Lyndon Johnson and Iraq Vietnam, the president will now become Richard Nixon and Iran will serve as neighboring Cambodia. "Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Rice. "And that was Cambodia, and when our government lied to the American people and said we didn't cross the border going into Cambodia, in fact we did."

Some of the reasons for escalation are strikingly similar: supply routes, material support, insurgency sanctuaries. It's a tempting comparison. But it is also misleading, as the president recognized in his speech when he declared, "We will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region." Cambodia never tried to acquire nuclear weapons, nor did it pursue regional dominance.

National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte expressed his concern during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday: "Iran's influence is rising in ways that go beyond the menace of its nuclear program," he said. If threatened, it might retaliate with terror attacks - with the help of its ally Hezbollah - "against U.S. interests." The rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Greece Friday morning serves as a sobering reminder of the many options terrorist organizations can quite easily pursue.

"The Iranians need to know, and the Syrians need to know," said Rice in yesterday's hearing, "that the United States is not finding it acceptable and is not going to simply tolerate their activities to try and harm our forces or to destabilize Iraq." This drops the ball, yet again, on the Iranian side of the court. It is high noon: If Tehran doesn't stop its nefarious activities - and assuming Washington doesn't go back on its pledge to "not tolerate" - someone, somewhere, is going to pull the trigger.