Paul Pillar

The Backdoor-to-War Resolution

Members of Congress, as we all know, are fond of making political gestures to play to whatever audience they are trying to play to. In private conversation members can be quite candid about this and will exhibit a bifurcated approach to their jobs in which the world of gesture-making is divorced from the world of sound policy-making. Seeing their political careers dependent on playing to audiences, members tend to be quick to brush aside any costs or hazards entailed in the gestures. This is particularly true of sense-of-the-Congress resolutions, which, as proponents of any such resolution can always point out, do not entail any changes carrying the force of law.

The trouble with this casual attitude toward gesture-making statements is that there often is someone else with an agenda who knows how to exploit the statements to advance the agenda. Even something as legally soft as a sense-of-the-Congress resolution will subsequently be cited as policy and precedent. Anyone who supported or even acquiesced in the gesture will forever be counted as backing the policy it implies, thereby making it seem that the policy is not the project of a determined minority even if it really is. Any qualifications or caveats that are incorporated in the statement get forgotten or are left unmentioned in later agitation by the determined minority to implement their favored policy.

All of these hazards are inherent in a draft joint resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved this week. The resolution, one of the endless series of Congressional love letters to Israel, “urges” in its final operative paragraph

that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

Forces of reason worked hard to modify this paragraph to make it slightly less bad than it was in the original version—which was co-authored by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—and those forces deserve commendation for their efforts. Changes included insertion of the word “legitimate,” limiting of the subject to a nuclear weapons program, and referring to Congress's constitutional responsibilities. But proponents of a war will take “legitimate” to be a declarative statement rather than a condition, reference to an Iranian nuclear weapons program perpetuates a falsehood that this is the kind of program Iran has now, and mention of Congress's responsibility will be taken as an invitation for Congress to pass a later war resolution. The fact that the modifications hardly eviscerated the message of the paragraph is reflected in the fact that the resolution's main outside proponent, AIPAC, crowed about the committee's approval.

The resolution is an open invitation to Israel to start a war with Iran and to drag the United States into that war. The resolution may accurately be referred to as either the “Backdoor-to-War Resolution” or the “Green Light Resolution.”

Once passed by both houses of Congress—which, if Congress stays true to form, it surely will be—the resolution will repeatedly be cited by proponents of a war as policy and as a commitment. It will be exploited the way such statements have been exploited in the past. Neocon defenders of the Iraq War repeatedly cite the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998—which Bill Clinton had no use for but signed when he was mired in the Lewinsky scandal and on the eve of getting impeached—as indicating that overthrowing the Iraqi regime had broad bipartisan support and was not just a neocon project.

The resolution will be described as a “commitment” alongside Barack Obama's boxing-himself-in declarations that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. In a somewhat heated debate I got involved in at a private dinner earlier this week, a prominent neoconservative commentator argued that the United States must never back down from Obama's “commitment” because to do so would severely damage U.S. credibility. I pointed out, without getting a response, that exactly the same argument about protecting U.S. credibility was the main reason for the U.S. decision to go in big in Vietnam in the 1960s (when the argument wasn't any more valid than it is now).

I will not take this space to review all the reasons a war with Iran, either initiated by the United States or getting dragged into it by Israel, would be folly from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Those reasons range from the counterproductivity of an action that would lead Iran to take the very decision (i.e., to make a nuclear weapon), that it has not taken thus far, to the poisoning of relations with generations of Iranians to come, regardless of what kind of regime is in power in Tehran in the future. Since we are dealing with a Congressional gesture, let us stay in gesture-land for the moment and just make a few observations about issues of right and wrong and thus what the United States should or should not declare itself to be in favor of.

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