There is something surreal about our current debate on national security. It concerns the looming issue of whether the United States should conduct pre-emptive aerial attacks against Iran if it fails to curb its nuclear program. While the recent election of a new, reformist president, Hassan Rowhani, augurs more promisingly for the prospects of a deal that could head off a possible conflict, Rowhani has not yet indicated any willingness to stop Iran’s enrichment of uranium or otherwise shut down the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program. And yet with the threat of war looming, we are barely talking about the subject.
Many issues great and small compete with Iran for attention. Scandals over the Internal Revenue Service, National Security Agency and Benghazi; political impasses over sequestration and the federal budget; Syria and Afghanistan. None of the above are unimportant. But airstrikes against Iran could lead this country into a third major Middle East war — or at least a prolonged period with a mix of hot and cold warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran — just as President Barack Obama has been declaring his desire to end wars in the broader Middle East and turn nationwide attention homeward.
This is a big deal. Yet in Congress, the issue hardly rates, right now. To be sure, Congress has had a hand in important Iran decisions of late, applying sanctions and increasing economic pressure on Tehran as it continues to move closer and closer to a bomb without actually crossing over Obama’s “red lines.” But there is no deliberation on whether this country would be well served by such airstrikes if Iran continues to expand its stockpiles of enriched uranium-235 and thereby comes closer to having the materials to make a bomb.
Ironically, and eerily, there is even less debate nationally over this possible war of pre-emption than there was in 2002 and 2003 over Iraq. To be sure, the problems are different. No one is talking about a U.S. invasion of Iran. But we should have learned from past experience that, while we may have the choice about starting certain wars, we do not always have final say on when they end.
Congress needs to take up the Iran issue. (It may in the course of the year need to take up the Syria issue, but that is a different matter and, on balance, perhaps slightly less fraught.) The decision on whether to have the option of striking Iran’s nuclear capabilities is weighty enough that the present occupant of the White House — whomever that might be — should not have exclusive decision-making power on the matter. And while we all might hope that any use of force would be short, limited and definitive, the history of warfare from Vietnam to Kosovo to Iraq suggests it could turn out otherwise.
No formal declaration of war need be drafted, debated or voted upon. Our rightful goal should remain to prevent a war, not promote one. Congress should not declare war on Iran. But it should consider a resolution authorizing the president to use force under certain conditions.
A conflict with Iran could encompass not only initial American air attacks but Iranian retaliation through terrorism or attacks on Persian Gulf oil wells and shipping or further escalation of its activities from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria. It might not end quickly or painlessly. As such, the American public needs to be informed and engaged in advance. Only congressional debate can create this kind of conversation and ultimately produce a consensus.
In practice, admittedly, it might be prudent for Congress to wait a few weeks to have a debate on this matter. President-elect Rowhani takes office in August, and it might make sense to see if he is immediately interested in a reasonable compromise deal before engaging in a vocal and very public congressional exchange on the subject. It would also be nice to finish bills on the budget, immigration and other pressing matters.
But if by fall there is no forward movement on the negotiating front with Tehran, Congress should take up the Iran issue. The vote would consider the question of whether, in the event that Iran moved irrevocably toward development of a nuclear weapon, all means should be considered by the president to prevent that outcome. It would not be a declaration of war — which we have not had since 1941, even in situations like the Persian Gulf War of 1991 or the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. But it would engage the country’s elected representatives in the decision that could wind up being the nation’s biggest foreign policy choice of Obama’s second term.
An affirmative vote could empower the president to press Iran harder on agreeing to a compromise that would limit its future enrichment capabilities and its stocks of enriched uranium. A negative vote could hurt diplomacy in some sense, but it would also help prevent the president from engaging in a conflict that his country is not ready to support.
That is how it is supposed to be in a democracy and how our Constitution demands that it be. Issues of war and peace should not be decided, ultimately, in just one man’s brain.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.