US must apply lessons of Iraq war to today's world

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If we are to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, there are a number of lessons from Iraq that bear keeping in mind.

First, sanctions work. Deftly employed, they can change behavior short of war and erode an adversary’s capabilities. According to the Iraq Survey Group commissioned by the Bush administration, Saddam Hussein responded to crippling sanctions in the 1990s by destroying his WMD program. True, he never gave up his ambition to rebuild the program, but sanctions constrained those ambitions and kept him in a box from which he was unable to escape.

That’s why I’ve led the effort in the Senate to impose crippling sanctions on Iran through three pieces of legislation over the past 15 months. Thanks to Congressional leadership and concerted, multilateral action under President Obama, with the cooperation of a robust international coalition, we have put in place what is arguably the toughest sanctions regime ever imposed on any nation. These sanctions are forcing Iran back to the negotiating table; slowing Iran’s drive to a bomb and we hope changing Tehran’s nuclear calculus.

Second, our security is enhanced when the United States stands with Israel. History is clear on this point. During the first Gulf War, Israel had to decide whether to respond to Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa or trust the United States to keep it safe. In the end, Israel could act with restraint because it knew that America had its back. Saddam’s desperate attempt to divide the international coalition failed, his aggression against Kuwait was reversed and American, Israeli and regional interests were protected.

When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, it’s clear there cannot be any daylight between the United States and Israel. That is why I‘ve introduced a resolution with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), which now has more than 60 co-sponsors, calling on the United States to stand with Israel and provide the diplomatic, military and economic support necessary for its self-defense.

Third, use of force is deadly serious business. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and we cannot make assumptions about best-case scenarios. In Iraq, we learned that lesson the hard way as misplaced hopes about being “greeted as liberators” and “mission accomplished” gave way to a decade-long war that took the lives of more than 4,400 of our brave fighting men and women and cost as much as $2 trillion.

If we are compelled to take military action against Iran, we must establish clear and achievable objectives. We must weigh the risks alongside our interests. We must have a realistic exit strategy. We must have strong support from the American people. And, above all, we must exhaust all other options before contemplating the use of force.

Even as we learn valuable lessons from Iraq, we must also be wary of misapplying historical analogies. When America launched its invasion, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction—and anyone who dug below the surface could see that the evidence was flimsy at best.

Iran is a different story. While the lessons of Iraq should teach us to be wary, they cannot incapacitate us until it is too late. The International Atomic Energy Agency has thoroughly documented Iran’s dangerous and growing nuclear program. The centrifuges are spinning, and the window for a diplomatic solution is closing. As President Obama has made clear, all options are on the table.

Ultimately, this is about keeping all Americans safe from the threat of nuclear proliferation in the hands of a rogue regime in Tehran. While our goal is to prevent a conflict, not create one, Iran must come clean about its nuclear program. The choice is theirs, and the lessons learned are clear.


Menendez is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.