Let's say you walked out your front door one morning to find your car had been vandalized overnight. It still works, but the tires are slashed, flat and uninflatable. You're right to be angry. You're right, even, to seek compensation for the crime and expense of making repairs. But would you seek the death penalty for the perpetrators?
No. Of course you wouldn't. Not if you have any sense of moral proportion.
So why, then, is America talking about going to war with Iran?
American officials are blaming Iran for several attacks on shipping in Middle East waterways in recent weeks, including two explosions that crippled tankers — one Japanese, one Norwegian — last week in the Gulf of Oman. Iranians deny responsibility, and the one piece of evidence the State Department has presented to the world as being "proof" of Iran's culpability depicts sailors removing a mine from a ship. It's not quite an open-and-shut case.
The good news is the attacks, so far, appear to be mostly an expensive bit of maritime vandalism. No ships have been sunk. No lives have been lost. No excuses should be made for the attackers — if they are indeed acting on orders from Tehran — but on a scale of international offense, it's difficult to make the case that these recent incidents amount to much more than a misdemeanor. The death penalty is not the appropriate response to a such a crime.
Going to war with Iran at this point, then, would be disproportionate and wrong.
Yet there's a sense that the United States is moving closer to making war, even if enthusiasm here and abroad seems fairly limited. Our European allies don't want war. Neither does Congress. President Trump even seems hesitant. But a familiar chorus of hawks — including some of Trump's closest advisers — is growing louder, demanding that America respond violently to Iran's provocations.
"These unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said Sunday on CBS.
Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at The New York Times, went even further over the weekend, citing the U.S. military response to a 1988 mine attack on an American military frigate that injured 10 sailors and nearly sunk the ship.
"Four days later, the U.S. Navy destroyed half the Iranian fleet in a matter of hours," Stephens wrote, and later added: "We sank Iran's navy before. Tehran should be put on notice that we are prepared and able to do it again."
Stephens' proposal, in particular, raises a question or two: Is there anybody in the world who doesn't understand that the United States has a large and powerful military? Is there anybody who thinks this president, if sufficiently provoked, would hesitate to use that power? America doesn't need to use its military to send a message we're willing to use our military. Everybody already knows.
What would a strike at this point even accomplish? Mostly, it would kill the Iranians on board the boats and ships targeted by the United States — assuming the conflict didn't escalate from there. Dozens or even hundreds of lives would be snuffed out as retribution for what, so far, have been acts of property damage. That would be immoral. Whether you believe in just war theory, or whether you simply believe we must have a darned good reason to make the deadly decision to commit forces to battle, the conclusion should be same: The stakes are too high — and the provocations at this point too small and limited — to justify war against Iran.
While there may not be much enthusiasm for war with Iran, there seems to be even less pressure to actually make peace. That's a problem. The United States has spent the last year squeezing Iran's economy with sanctions, simply because President Trump didn't like the Iran nuclear deal. The result has been a slow and steady escalation of tensions that have now seemingly brought the two countries to the brink of battle — and the escalations continue: AP reported that Iran is set to break the uranium stockpile limit set by that nuclear deal.
The march to war is not inexorable. The people in charge — on both sides of the divide — still have choices to make. The United States and the international community have the right to ensure that shipping lanes in the region remain free and open to use. It does not follow, however, that the right response is to sink half of Iran's navy. Instead, the U.S. and Iran must start talking to each other again, if only through intermediaries.
Unless there is a definitive move toward peace, however, it seems likely the pressure to escalate will build. It has become commonplace for America's hawks to preface every talk of war with the assurance that "nobody" wants it to actually happen. It is difficult to believe those assurances. For now, however, they don't offer a sufficient reason to go to battle. The pretext is simply too thin.