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M.D. Harmon: Next U.S. President must be prepared to act in Middle East conflict

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“You may not be interested in war. But war is interested in you.”

–Attributed to Leon Trotsky

Sometimes falsely attributed “quotations,” such as the one above, take on a life of their own because they still resonate with a core of truth. After all, Edmund Burke never directly said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” but the self-evident reality of that statement has kept it alive and kicking for nearly two centuries.

And both statements apply to what’s going on in the Middle East today. Sadly, only one of the two candidates for president seems to understand it, which could be very bad news for Americans, both in and out of uniform.

No one can blame Americans in general for being weary of conflict abroad, and casting a skeptical eye on those who say the military side of the war on terror isn’t — or shouldn’t — be winding down.

After Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States under President George W. Bush declared that no nation would be allowed to provide a sanctuary to terrorists, and on that basis invaded Afghanistan to deprive al-Qaida the shelter that the Taliban had provided, the nation has been continually at war, primarily there and in Iraq.

But Americans’ present attitudes may not make much of a difference if events in the Middle East take a tack toward a war that could drag in multiple nations with which the United States is diplomatically and militarily involved.

And the potential for direct attacks on our ships, troops and bases in the region are not beyond the scope of possibility, either.

What should we think about such things? And, if push comes to shove, what should we do? And what should we be being doing right now with that in mind?

Some people may think that with the conflict in Iraq formally at an end and the one in Afghanistan slowly winding down (or at least our part in it is), Americans’ odds of being at war are declining, not increasing. Most of us would likely think that was a good thing, one would suspect.

But as desirable as that hope may be, it may be equally unrealistic. Fond wishes have never deterred a war yet, and they are not likely to now, either.

The next war, if it comes, will involve Iran, which as everyone not living in a cave already knows, will likely soon have the capability of producing nuclear weapons (if it doesn’t already have them).

And of course that has become an issue in the current political campaign, which is not a bad thing, as long as the debate over the threat such a capability poses remains tied to real-world concerns and not ideological point-scoring.

OK, what are the odds of that?

But what’s interesting about the way the United States and Israel are responding to this isn’t so much what’s being said for political consumption, as what’s being done about it (including correlation-of-forces military adjustments in and around the Persian Gulf).

On the surface, the Obama administration appears to be doubling down on the ineffective dithering that marked most of the efforts of the Bush administration to control the Iranians’ mushroom-cloud ambitions.

Sanctions imposed by the United States and many (but not all) of its allies appear to be hurting Iran, but so far that hasn’t been enough to stop it from pursuing the bomb.

What’s interesting is what’s going on behind the scenes, with assassination squads reportedly acting on behalf of Israel (but who really knows?) making the job of “Iranian nuclear scientist” one with a lot of recently created room for advancement.

And pat-me-on-the-back revelations of Obama-favoring leakers who are hiding in the Oval Office’s woodwork (as even Democrats admit) say that computer viruses such as Stuxnet are giving Tehran’s bomb-making computer programs a really bad case of the bit-and-byte flu.

But there are two other players that count, and one complicating wild card that still could be the fuse to the regional powder keg (if you like mixed metaphors, I have a ton of ’em).

One of the players, of course, is Israel, and what it could do when and if (well, OK, when, not if) it finds out the ayatollahs are on the verge of acquiring the bomb. They think (and they are probably not wrong) that means they will either use it or offer it to people who will. If anyone believes that the Jewish homeland has forgotten what “Never Again” means, they are wrong.

Second, the fuse that has been lit is in Syria, Iran’s most important regional ally. While it looks like brutal strongman Bashar Assad is on his way out, what will follow is unknown, and the likelihood that “moderates” will come to the fore out of the chaos that will result seems small, as there are precious few moderates in the Muslim Middle East.

That’s not to say that Syrian “stability” based on cruelty and oppression is a viable alternative, only that continued upset seems the most likely outcome.

And it’s not at all clear whether that uproar will accrue to Iran’s benefit, or to its harm.

Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has pledged strong support to Israel, while the Obama administration, less open vocally, is still moving naval task forces toward the Gulf, not away from it.

Political analyst Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College, said recently on his blogsite Via Meadia that such expressions of support for Israel really aren’t aimed at impressing Jewish voters to support one candidate or the other. Instead, he says, “In American politics, taking a strong pro-Israel stand is a way of communicating your commitment to American exceptionalism and to American global leadership.”

That is, support for Israel is aimed at conservative voters in general, not just orthodox Jewish ones — who represent far less than 2 percent of the electorate, after all.

Still, there are policy points to make as well as political ones. Some analysts say that the difference appears to be that Obama is ready to take action if Iran gets the bomb, while the Israelis will act before that point, when it becomes clear that nothing less than force will deter Tehran.

That’s when the military adage that “The plan goes out when the window when the first shot is fired” kicks in. No one — no one at all — can predict what will happen if Israel, alone or with U.S. aid, attacks Iran.

No one knows what will happen if it doesn’t, either. If nothing happens, it appears that Iran will be the world’s next nuclear-armed nation. Regional powers like Saudi Arabia also have the ability to produce such weapons on short notice if that happens, and the minimum result would be a regional arms race around the Persian Gulf, but also including Turkey.

What will it matter if Americans do not want to face up to the implications of that — especially if a nuclear bomb goes off somewhere in that part of the world? Or, for that matter, in ours?

War-weary or not, we will not be able to stand on the sidelines in a conflict involving Iran, which makes it all the more important that we have leadership in place that will know what to do.

So, which current candidate has the most credible chance of responding effectively and appropriately to such a serious challenge?

While pondering that question, it may help us to recall that the quotes linked to Trotsky and Burke — a Marxist and a quintessential traditional conservative — were each quite correct, no matter that those people never said them.

Hating war never kept it from coming, and doing nothing while evil men act is a recipe for ruin.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

About M.D. Harmon

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

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