Jay Bookman / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – 2008-07-10 22:01:21
(July 7,, 2008) — A US attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would create trouble that we aren’t equipped to handle easily, not with ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drove that point home in a press conference last week at the Pentagon.
“I’ve been pretty clear before that from the United States’ perspective, the United States’ military perspective in particular, that opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us,” Mullen said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging.”
Mullen was more diplomatic about the consequences if the Israeli government were to launch such an attack, saying he would leave that decision to the Israelis. But his message was the same: “Don’t do it.”
Or as Mullen put it, “this is a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t need it to be more unstable.”
Strategically, it almost doesn’t matter whether an attack is launched by Israel or by the United States. The two are viewed as one entity by many in the Middle East. And either way, an attack would create the same backlash from the same parties, leaving the US military to clean up the mess.
Mullen, who had just returned from a visit to the Middle East, no doubt communicated that message more bluntly in private discussions with his Israeli counterparts. And as Israeli military analysts have noted, Israeli jets would need US permission to fly over Iraqi airspace in order to get to their targets in Iran.
Mullen’s words of caution no doubt grated on the ears of those elements in the Bush White House still hankering for military action against Iran. But the admiral made clear his preference for negotiations over war.
“I’m convinced a solution still lies in using other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior,” Mullen said, “including diplomatic, financial and international pressure. There is a need for better clarity, even dialogue at some level.”
It’s interesting to compare Mullen’s strategic assessment against those of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. McCain and his top foreign policy advisers, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have stressed the military approach to Iran and condemned attempts at dialogue advocated by Obama. Mullen, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, takes a position that aligns more closely with that of Obama.
Mullen also echoes Obama in discussing the interplay between our situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mullen candidly acknowledged last week that because of a shortage of US and NATO manpower in Afghanistan, the Taliban “have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, and as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate.”
To alleviate that problem, Obama has advocated drawing down troops in Iraq and using some of those units to bolster our commitment to Afghanistan. Mullen also sees that as a necessity.
“I’ve made no secret of my desire to flow more forces, US forces, to Afghanistan just as soon as I can,” he said. “Nor have I been shy about saying that those forces will not be available unless or until the situation in Iraq permits us to do so.”
As that last sentence suggests, Mullen’s assessment does differ from that of Obama in one critical aspect. The admiral is not ready to advocate a troop drawdown in Iraq, saying only that he is hopeful of doing so by the end of the year if conditions in Iraq continue to improve. Obama, on the other hand, is ready to make that call now, insisting that fewer US troops in Iraq and more in Afghanistan would improve the situation in both theaters.
If elected president, Obama will likely find it impossible to draw down in Iraq as quickly as he advocated as a candidate. But he may also find top military officers relieved to have civilian leaders with a more realistic concept of how our men and women in uniform should be deployed.
• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
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