As the drumbeat for war with Iran grows more insistent, the search for a "casus belli" compelling enough to calm a newly assertive Congress and convince an increasingly questioning American public intensifies. Themes of justification for such a war fluctuate between fears of a nuclear-armed Tehran and the "smoking gun" of Iranian involvement in America's misadventure in Iraq.
But before Americans get sent off to a third war in a Muslim country, it is worth recalling that in the past century, no nation that has started a major war has ended up winning it. Moreover, in the last 50 years, no nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation has lost — a lesson that I learned personally when, beginning in 1986, I found myself in Pakistan, managing the CIA effort to aid Afghan resistance fighters battling Soviet troops.
This point is best illustrated by looking at the wars the Cold War enemies waged by proxy in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
When the North Koreans attacked South Korea in June 1950, the United States found itself at war. From the outset, the North Koreans received aid from China and combat advisers from the Soviet Union. But all external players in that war — the United States, the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communists — understood that direct confrontation between them was to be avoided. When President Harry Truman's commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, decided to go against the new "rules" by calling for air strikes against China in 1951, Truman refused, concerned that such action could bring the Soviet Union into the war. When MacArthur publicly criticized the president's decision, Truman fired him. America lost more than 40,000 dead in Korea in a proxy war with the Soviet Union and China.
The same rules applied in Southeast Asia, where the supply lines to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had their origins in China and the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that there was a Soviet or Chinese hand in American casualties, Washington never seriously considered striking back at either nation. America lost more than 58,000 killed in Vietnam in its continuing proxy battle with China and the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the tables were turned. President Jimmy Carter ordered the CIA to provide assistance to the Afghan resistance, who were fighting Soviet forces with little more than their trusty Enfield rifles. The CIA organized a coalition that included Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the People's Republic of China — yes, the Chinese were only too happy this time around to provide the ordnance to kill Soviet troops instead of Americans. Literally every AK-47 round, mortar round, rocket-propelled grenade, or anti-aircraft missile fired at the Soviet forces passed through CIA's pipeline. (Nevertheless, the Soviets — aside from a few sneering threats by KGB officers I ran across in Pakistan — never seriously considered striking back at the external supporters of the Afghan resistance.)
In 1989, the Soviets gave up and withdrew from Afghanistan. They lost over 15,000 troops killed. Two years later their empire was gone.
The rules of proxy warfare that were developed during these conflicts point to another lesson, perhaps the ultimate one regarding America's rising confrontation with Iran: If there has to be war, better let the other side start it.
The Bush administration might dismiss the need to negotiate with Iran's blustering president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over Tehran's nuclear aspirations and the proxy wars it is accused of waging in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. But Washington should nevertheless remember that the modern nation of Iran traces its roots back to ancient Persia and that beneath every Iranian lies a Persian who views his country in the context of "Greater Iran." Even before Rome conquered the Western world, the lands controlled by a series of Persian empires stretched from the Caucasus to the Indus River, a cultural and sometimes political arc that not so long ago contained Iraq and Afghanistan and much, much more.
It is delusional to suggest that Iran would remain a spectator to a foreign invasion of a part of "Greater Iran." Iran's current meddling in the region is a re- asserted Persian version of America's Monroe Doctrine, which unilaterally put the world on notice that outside interference in the affairs of the American hemisphere would not be tolerated.
If the United States is to wage war with Iran it should be for sound reasons, not for some sleight of hand manipulation. Such a war, regardless of how it starts, will most certainly have a bad outcome, just as the current adventure in Iraq can have no good outcome.
The Bush administration, or the one that succeeds it, will ultimately have to start talking with Tehran. If that is inevitable, why not get on with it?