Ever since his ³Axis of Evil² speech, President Bush has been rattling his saber over Iran's purported nuclear weapons program. Now he has gone farther and endorsed Israel's claim that Iran is the key to the Hezbollah rocket threat across the Lebanese border. Though intended to make President Ahmadinejad fearful, this elevation of the rhetoric of Iranian villainy may have put an American attack on Iran completely out of reach.
Someday we may know why Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, but events have rendered this irrelevant. Israel intends to uproot Hezbollah and cut its funding and arms pipelines through Damascus and Tehran. For this it needs help, not just in prolonging the hostilities in Lebanon, but also in confronting Iran. President Bush's predecessors consistently demanded that Iran stop supporting Israel's enemies. They made this a condition for entering into talks with Tehran. Unlike his predecessors, however, President Bush is facing a real war in Lebanon. When he says that Israel's security problem in Lebanon won't be solved so long as Iran continues its wicked ways, he verges on declaring an ultimatum.
The logic of the Israeli and American characterization of Iran, as neoconservatives like William Kristol have pointed out, is that excavating holes in the Iranian landscape in hopes of strangling a nuclear threat in its cradle would fall far short of curbing the Hitlerian menace they see in President Ahmadinejad. Though the war in Lebanon has no name, the war against Iran that these ideologues visualize comes variously under the rubric of the Big War, the Long War, or the ³beginning² of World War III.
The problem is the United States can't fight this war with the army it has. Plans for an strike against Iran's nuclear facilities have been openly discussed. They range from surgical strikes against suspected nuclear facilities to a broader campaign of infrastructural bombing. Those who have cautioned against this limited strike scenario point out that there is no way to ensure the destruction of a dispersed nuclear program by air strikes and that Iran's retaliatory options - fomenting Shi'ite attacks on American troops in Iraq, unleashing Hezbollah against Israel, driving up oil prices - do not depend on the massed army assault on Iraq that American planners dream of.
So far, these uncertainties have kept the hawks at bay. But the balance against an attack has not been so great that discovery of a provable Iranian nuclear capability could not reverse it.
Now the Lebanon crisis is rewriting the equation. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and President Bush say that Iran is an immense danger. If so, a surgical attack on Iranian nuclear targets would seem as insufficient to the threat at hand as the cruise missiles President Clinton launched against al-Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan.
But who would do the fighting if the United States decided on regime change in Iran, including a full-scale invasion to follow up the initial ³shock and awe²? Not only does the American army have its hands full in Iraq, but shifting the majority of the forces there to the Iranian front could only worsen the problems of insurgency and civil war.
The Iraq debacle has already shown that going to war with too few ground troops invites disaster. Now the fighting in Lebanon is teaching new lessons - bombing bridges and oil tanks does not force a beleaguered population to turn on its leaders. The Iranian military instructors who taught Hezbollah how to fight so skillfully no longer follow the massive assault doctrines of the 1980s.
The international news media attract international sympathy for civilian casualties, none of which would be American in a Big War. And the vaunted intelligence techniques that can't locate Sheikh Nasrullah (or Osama bin Laden) also can't distinguish a building housing refugees from a rocket launcher.
A successful ground campaign against Iran could not be fought without a colossal build-up in American ground forces. This could only mean a return to conscription. Leaving aside the certainty that a call for a new draft, particularly one predicated on spilling American blood to eliminate Israel's enemies, would trigger a massive antiwar movement in the United States, too few months remain for the Bush administration to build the necessary army. And it is hard to imagine a presidential race in 2008 in which the candidates vie with one another in threatening war with Iran.
American conservatives and liberals alike detest the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini humiliated presidents Carter and Reagan, and the United States still cannot get over the disgrace. Similarly, both congressional parties agree that Israel should never be discouraged in any actions it deems necessary for defending itself.
But by pumping up the rhetoric of anti-Iranian scare-mongering, the current Israeli leadership has diminished the likelihood of an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Clinton's ineffectual and hesitant response in the face of a looming Middle Eastern menace may not be a viable option for Bush. But confronting Iran at the Big War level, with the renewed draft that would be required, is not a viable option for the American population.
Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Islam: A View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization