The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Is America headed toward war?

Getty Images

In any other political climate this would make a juicy political thriller. A president running behind in critical battleground states is pushed by a hardline national security adviser to pull the country into war with an unstable Iranian regime filled with its own hardline officials. The conflict escalates with our allies and adversaries alike confused about our foreign policy. War seems likely but remains largely unpopular in the electorate.

Then terrorist attacks, ascribed to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, happen in the homeland. Members of Congress who seek deterrence or diplomacy, particularly in moderate districts, confront fear and cries for vengeance. The Trump administration goes to war with the consent of Congress by only a few votes. Responding to the new possibility of more terrorist attacks, the Trump administration clamps down on civil rights in order to make America safe again. The wartime president is reelected, and his supporters demand a third term, much like he suggested this month.

America becomes a dark and much different place than we know. If any actual abuse or affront of the past two years should concern us more than we already are, it is that the fanciful plot of a novel by James Patterson or Nelson Demille or Daniel Silva is plausible today. The outcome of our foreign policy can be reasonably forecast on the flap of a dust jacket.

But in fact, and not fiction, Iran is a belligerent and menacing threat in the Middle East. It is a state sponsor of terrorism and arms organizations such as Hezbollah. Iran develops ballistic missiles of various ranges and pumps resources to Houthis in Yemen. It uses proxies to launch attacks on American personnel. If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to be believed, it attacked ships in the Gulf, probably to force up oil prices.

Iran announced it may not comply with a key provision of the deal that restrained, at least temporarily, its nuclear weapons program. Its Atomic Energy Organization announced that unless Europe opposes American sanctions, Iran plans to exceed the limits on nuclear fuel under the deal and allow an “unlimited increase” in its stockpile of enriched uranium.

Casus belli, or an act that justifies war, according to some. On the other hand, the Trump administration seems ready to go to war against Iran for pulling out of a deal that the Trump administration pulled out of first. This is like agreeing to buy a car, then unilaterally canceling the contract and demanding punishment against the dealer for not keeping his word to sell you the car. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has tightened sanctions in an effort to land some more crippling blows on the Iranian economy.

That background beat of the war drums you hear is from national security adviser John Bolton, who penned an opinion column four years ago for the New York Times headlined, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” We have been here before. In the months leading to the 2002 midterm elections, the war hawks shrieked, the drums banged, and the intelligence delivered to members of Congress sizzled hot with artificial flavoring. The vote to authorize war was only three weeks before the election. Bush Republicans accomplished a rare political feat by picking up seats in those midterms.

But those events seem almost sanguine compared to now. Then we had a foreign policy that may have been wrong, but was clear to our friends and foes alike. Then we had people in the Bush administration who had made misjudgments, but understood and respected democratic institutions, and had not yet been intoxicated by a new brand of Republicanism that coddles dictators and vilifies patriots. In the Bush administration, the view of Bolton may have been considered, but did not ultimately prevail. In the Trump administration, Bolton controls the gas, the match, and the flame.

I hope my political intuition is being eclipsed by my novelist imagination. But 2002 is seared into my memory. I remember the approach toward a historic miscalculation. I recall the troops and ships heading to the Gulf. I saw the armchair generals stiffening their spines in the swivel chairs of the cable network studios. I witnessed the extraordinary homeland security professionals who have brilliantly protected us since 9/11. We may now be witnessing the prologue to a war and wartime climate unlike any other, a prologue which once belonged on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Congress Iran John Bolton Mike Pompeo Military President Steve Israel War

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video