Sen. Tom Cotton has some news for all of you peacenik hippies who think dropping bombs on Iranian nuclear facilities would qualify as a “war” with Iran: It won’t, so shut up. As Buzzfeed reports, the Arkansas Republican went on the radio yesterday and accused President Obama of presenting the “the ultimate false choice last week when he said it’s either this deal [the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran] or war.” We wouldn’t have to have a “war,” Cotton argued, but rather just a couple days of bombing, in the spirit of Bill Clinton’s 1998 airstrikes on Iraqi weapons facilities.
Whoosh whoosh, boom boom, and home in time for dinner:
COTTON: Even if military action were required – and we certainly should have kept the credible threat of military force on the table, it always improves diplomacy – the president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq. That’s simply not the case.
It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days of air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior, for interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions. All we’re asking is that the president simply be as tough in the protection of America’s national security interests as Bill Clinton was.
This entire premise is wildly specious. It's so thoroughly steeped in bad-faith argumentation, and it sneakily points directly at what Cotton really wants: a "war"-type war.
First of all, dropping bombs from warplanes and firing missiles from submarines are acts of war. Narrowly defining “war” as a large-scale invasion of another country serves only to lessen the significance of all military action short of that extreme standard. Neocons like Cotton understand that no one really has an appetite for “war,” so they seek to redefine the concept in a way that allows them to shrug off sustained bombing campaigns as something other than “war.” And for all the faith Cotton has in bombing, no one believes that airstrikes on Iran would actually end the Iranian nuclear program. Striking Iranian nuclear facilities would set the program back by just a few years, and that’s the optimistic outcome endorsed by people who really want to bomb Iran. Also, an attack on Iran would simply steel the regime’s determination to nuke up, only they’d do it in more clandestine fashion. And, of course, he’s not allowing for the possibility that Iran will retaliate in some fashion that will further destabilize the region.
And Cotton’s invocation of Operation Desert Fox is absurd. At best, conservative hawks and Republicans thought Desert Fox was a failed half-measure. At worst, they believed Clinton initiated the operation simply to divert attention from domestic politics as the GOP-controlled House debated whether to impeach him over the Lewinsky affair.
The reason hawks didn’t think much of Operation Desert Fox was because it didn’t facilitate the ultimate goal they had in mind: regime change in Iraq. Here’s Robert Kagan, the intellectual heavyweight behind the “invade everyone and bomb everything always” school of foreign policy, lambasting Clinton in the Weekly Standard in January 2001:
In Iraq, Clinton walked right up to the edge of using force in February 1998, only to panic and let U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan give Saddam Hussein a reprieve. Once again, it was fear of employing ground troops that undid Clinton's strategy, for as the confrontation with Saddam drew near, administration officials realized that bombing alone -- the casualty-minimizing and therefore politically safer option -- would accomplish nothing. And, indeed, that was precisely what Clinton accomplished a year later, when he ordered a futile four-day air attack on Iraq. That bombing, known as Operation Desert Fox, was ostensibly aimed at retarding Saddam's missile and weapons programs: Sandy Berger's "whack-a-mole" strategy. But its real purpose, as usual, was to solve political problems at home. In fact, it accomplished less than nothing in Iraq. It gave Saddam the excuse to kick out U.N. arms inspectors, and it destroyed what little international will was left to maintain sanctions against Iraq. As Clinton's Iraq policy has collapsed, his strategy has been purely political and entirely cynical: to keep Iraq off the front pages, to pretend that Saddam is still in his "box," and to let the next president deal with the threat of this rearmed Middle East predator.
There is some debate over what the true aims of Desert Fox were, but the practical effect of the operation was to alienate U.S. allies and make it harder to know exactly what was happening with Saddam’s weapons programs – sound familiar?
So Clinton bombed Iraq, and the hawks argued “hey, bombing didn’t solve the problem! It made it worse!” And when a Republican president came into office, they seized their moment and successfully made the case that more drastic measures were necessary to deprive Saddam of his (presumed) WMDs. And now here comes Tom Cotton, arguing that Obama should attack Iran – not go to “war,” but drop bombs, just like Bill Clinton did in Iraq, in the interest of our national security. That’s the same Tom Cotton who wants to sabotage diplomacy with Iran and instead pursue a policy of “regime change." It’s not tough to see what’s going on here.