Planning on attacking Iran? "Better pack a lunch," advises my friend, retired Lt. Col. Terry Daly, who knows a lot about war. His point was that airstrikes alone against Iranian nuclear facilities wouldn't do much. If you are going to attack Iran, you need to hit its ability to retaliate, and that means that pretty soon you have a big fat war on your hands.
I can't believe we are discussing this. I am hearing lots of depressing talk that there is a good chance that Israel will attack Iran sometime this year and that we will get sucked into the ensuing mess. In some ways, there already is a kind of shadow war under way with Iran -- Stuxnet, the drone intrusions, the recent explosions and assassinations, the sanctions.
But for all that, I just can't see Obama getting us involved in another Middle Eastern war. The American people certainly have no appetite for it. I think he almost certainly would lose reelection if a war broke out, because his base would fall apart and the left would go into opposition.
At any rate, an article by my CNAS colleague Colin Kahl that went up last night on the website of Foreign Affairs argues well that the "containment vs. attack" mindset is a false dilemma. In fact, he says, even if you attacked Iran, you'd still have to contain it afterward. So a series of airstrikes is not a substitute for containment, but a prelude to it.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.