April 1, 2012  

Cool the war talk

TO GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY for attempting to cool an increasingly heated national discussion about war with Iran.

It’s a sign of how things are going that the chairman’s simple declaration on CNN — “We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor” — was deemed controversial. Governments may bluster and miscalculate, but their actions are ultimately tethered to a set of national interests.

The situation is far more complicated than portrayed by pundits and presidential candidates trying to be hawkier-than-thou. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. intelligence community say they have no solid evidence Tehran is actively building nuclear bombs. At the same time, few serious observers believe military strikes — certainly not those that could be mounted by Israeli conventional forces — could do much more than delay a determined Iranian effort in that direction.

Short of a full-on U.S. invasion, which would be a far more difficult and costly proposition than the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the policy choices may ultimately amount to facing “a nuclear Iran” or “a nuclear Iran that has suffered an intense bombing campaign.”

“It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” Dempsey said. He’s right.

declining to make clear the law surrounding the killing of U.S. citizens.

The U.S. attorney general took a step toward transparency March 5 when he stated plainly that the government believes it may, without judicial review, order the military to kill American citizens suspected of being terrorists. But he failed at the more important task: to lay out how this ostensibly comports with the law. Essentially, the Obama administration is saying, “Trust us: This is legal.”

Leaving aside the corrosive effects of secret law on American society, it is not fair to ask the military — from the defense secretary down to trigger-pullers — to do their jobs amid legal murk. There are times when war, that most swift and complex of human endeavors, thrusts its participants unexpectedly into legal gray zones. This is not one of them.