The sound of sabers rattling is a fearsome one, particularly given that the weapons actually being contemplated are more destructive by many magnitudes. And although President Barack Obama has been anything but a peacenik, essentially prosecuting the war agenda of the previous administration for the past three years, his more sober, measured approach to the most recent foreign-affairs threats defines the best of the possible courses America now confronts.
In Hawaii we are about to be reminded, yet again, of the terrible toll of war, with the announcement this week that 150 Hawaii Army National Guard soldiers will be sent this fall to Afghanistan. Their mission — the training of Afghan security forces — is crucial to the drawdown and ultimate withdrawal of American troops from this decade-old conflict.
With the unrest sparked by the U.S. accidental burning of Qurans, that mission has just become much more dangerous. Six Americans were killed in retaliatory violence, the killers including a Afghan wearing his country’s Army uniform. And these are the people American troops will be training, at a time when any trusting relationship built between the two forces has been severely compromised.
It’s a stark reminder of how U.S. actions in conflicts on the other side of the world can hit home. And it’s also a reminder that careless words and deeds can have fatal consequences.
It’s in this context that some politically heated rhetoric is being bandied about as the pace of the presidential campaign season lurches toward the next, post-Super-Tuesday phase, and as tensions mount between Iran and Israel, and the bloodbath continues in Syria.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confronted U.S. senators who want American military force in Syria, where thousands have been killed in a regime crackdown. Unlike the Libyan situation, there’s no consensus in the Arab world on Syrian intervention, he said, and unilateral action by the U.S. would spark violent backlashes.
On Iran, three hawkish GOP primary candidates — Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — have been beating the war drums.
"The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve," said Romney, "backed by our power and our readiness to use it."
Santorum dismissed the crucial negotiations with Iran as "another appeasement, another delay," and Gingrich said Iran has already crossed the "red line" in its nuclear development, which he said demands a military response now before Iranians can progress toward nuclear weapon capability.
The only holdout in the Republican pack is Ron Paul, who has adhered to the non-interventionist libertarian critique of most recent American military adventures overseas.
President Obama has given a much more nuanced response, during the recent conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential group that identifies itself as "America’s pro-Israel lobby." Obama held private discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then, countering his GOP counterparts (except Paul), took time out from Super Tuesday balloting to reassert his view that there is still power in the diplomatic option.
Sanctions paired with negotiations, the tools of diplomacy, must be given their fullest chance to work. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, said that building nuclear weapons is a "great sin." U.S. diplomats should nudge Iran closer to embracing a verified weapon-free nuclear energy program, one that aligns with its own professed theocratic principles.
Precipitous military actions would bring once again the horrors of war to the Middle East — and to our troops and their families here in Hawaii.
The red line is not yet crossed. Patience and persistence, not reckless posturing, will ensure that it won’t be.