In true Churchillian fashion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrust the Iranian nuclear program, and particularly the case for setting red lines, into the fray of United States presidential politics. Netanyahu’s argument — that imposing red lines on Iran will reduce the chance of a military conflict — is a compelling one. Yet, one more point would make the argument even more compelling for the American public: Setting red lines today will relieve the United States from having to send troops abroad tomorrow, when the Iranian regime will otherwise go nuclear.
Netanyahu’s rationale for setting red lines against Iran has seemingly been that the United States must establish a clear point of no return for Iran if it wants to avoid war. During his speech at the United Nations, Netanyahu literally drew a red line, aptly stating that “red lines don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war.”
Earlier, Knesset Deputy Speaker Danny Danon, while presenting a similar argument, made one additional point. In an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Danon said that the United States must understand that Israel will not ask America to fight Iran on Israel’s behalf.
There is, however, yet another point that should concern Americans even more. If red lines are not set and Iran continues toward nuclear capability, the United States will most certainly be forced to commence military action against Iran, because it will be only a short matter of time before Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other oil-supplying Gulf states request that the United States commit its troops to thwart a nuclear-armed Iran from endangering the region — and its vital oil fields. Both precedent and recent reports demonstrate that this progression is likely to occur.
The United States fought the Gulf War to restore the independence of a single Arab state, Kuwait, after it was overrun by Saddam Hussein and an Iraq that (thanks to Israel) was not even a nuclear power. Nonetheless, the United States found it necessary to commit more than 500,000 troops to protect Kuwait and its neighboring states, and their oil reserves, from that megalomaniac tyrant. According to a 2010 report commissioned by the Congressional Research Service, the net cost to US taxpayers for that exercise was $4.7 billion in current-year dollars, in addition to the more than $95 billion in current-year dollars that were offset by allied contributions or were absorbed by the Department of Defense (Daggett, Stephen. “Costs of Major U.S. Wars.” Rep. no. 7-5700. Vol. RS22926. Congressional Research Service, 2010).
Recent events demonstrate that this history would most certainly be repeated. Saudi Arabia has already sent less-than-subtle messages of its concern, even indicating tacit support for an Israeli airstrike on Iran. Azerbaijan has apparently even gone so far as to have offered Israel use of its airfields for such a strike. Yet, if that penultimate line of defense is not implemented, these Gulf nations will almost assuredly demand full American intervention, as Kuwait did 20 years ago. The United States would then need to send entire divisions to the region, for a prolonged, even unknown, period of time. This would create one of the most significant military campaigns in history, likely exceeding even that of Operation Iraqi Freedom in both size and cost.
The case for setting red lines is therefore not only a moral issue; it should be a financial concern of the highest order for the people of the United States. Any United States official willing to honestly confront geopolitical reality must undertake the clear cost-benefit analysis between setting red lines today and spending massive tax dollars tomorrow, when the United States finds itself required to protect the Middle East — and its vital oil supplies — from belligerent Iran.
Given that the window of opportunity for setting red lines against Iran is essentially closing, American officials must seriously consider this argument. Now is the time for the United States to make a solid show of confronting Iran without risking any troops; otherwise, it will be forced to mobilize and send entire divisions of American troops into harm’s way at an exorbitant cost to the United States.
Cast in these terms, it would be foolhardy for the Obama administration not to seize the opportunity to avoid the far more costly option.