House Defense Bill Would Embolden Iran

Dem-backed NDAA would undermine American deterrence

Iranian military truck carries missiles past portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei / Getty
July 16, 2019

On Friday, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which would authorize $733 billion in appropriations for fiscal year 2020. In order to get progressives, who want to cut military spending, to support the annual defense bill, Democrats included several measures to assuage their fears. One such amendment, which was critical in winning the backing of liberal Democrats, would prevent President Trump from using military force against Iran without Congress's explicit authorization. The measure is meant to avert war with Iran, but it would actually facilitate Iranian belligerence—and, if anything, make war more likely.

The amendment passed on Friday by a vote of 251-70, with the support of 27 Republicans (none of whom approved the final bill) and all but 7 Democrats. Many of the lawmakers who backed the measure described it as a way to blunt the charging spear of Washington's warmongers, who, according to this argument, just cannot get involved in enough wars abroad.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.), vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the vote "a clear statement from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that this country is tired of endless wars, that we do not want another war in the Middle East."

The Republicans who supported the amendment echoed Khanna's sentiments.

"If my war-hungry colleagues, some of whom have already suggested we invade Venezuela and North Korea and probably a few other countries before lunchtime tomorrow, if they're so certain of their case against Iran," said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.), "let them bring their authorization to use military force against Iran to this very [House] floor. Let them make the case to Congress and the American people."

The media also described the amendment as an effort to prevent war. The New York Times, for example, reported that the measure would "shackle President Trump's ability to wage war in Iran," and Roll Call said it would block Trump from "launching an unauthorized war with Iran."

Such portrayals of the amendment are wildly misleading. Limited strikes against Iranian assets in retaliation for Iran harassing international shipping or attacking American equipment or personnel—which is really the kind of action Trump would consider—are not even close to the same as war. At what point did "using military force" automatically become full-scale war? Equating the two in absolute terms, without any appreciation for complexity, shows either remarkable dishonesty or a complete lack of understanding of Iran and of what the American military can do.

Look at Syria, where Trump ordered retaliatory strikes against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after it used chemical weapons on its own people. The Syrian government never responded, and neither side launched a war. Imagine that! And Iran, which is allied with Syria, did nothing. More to the point, Israel has, in the past few years, carried out hundreds of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, killing many soldiers—including high-ranking officers—and causing significant damage to equipment and facilities. Yet somehow Iran and Israel are not formally at war, and Iran has barely responded to Israel's strikes.

So it is possible to use military force, even against Iran, without triggering a calamitous war. Those who claim otherwise must not appreciate that the Islamic Republic has, since its inception in 1979, avoided direct confrontation and adopted generally cautious foreign and defense policies, willing to weigh costs and benefits rationally. In other words, the regime in Tehran would back down from a direct fight with the United States, which Iran's rulers know they could never defeat in a full-scale war.

When Iran sees an opening, however, it pounces. Just look at the months after Iran and the Obama administration struck the nuclear deal. Without any fear of American retaliation, Iran increased its aggression across the Middle East, coordinating with Russia to launch a barbaric surge into Syria to save Assad's murderous regime.

The harsh truth is that the credible threat of American military retaliation is the foundation of deterrence that stabilizes Washington's antagonistic relationship with Tehran, preventing tensions from escalating to war. But if Iran believes the United States will not use military force against it, the regime will think that it can scare the U.S. into submission through coercion. And that is when the risk of miscalculation from either side is at its greatest.

The amendment to the defense bill does not serve its intended purpose. If anything, Congress should pass a measure authorizing the president to strike Iran. Not that the commander in chief would legally need congressional approval, but such a step would go a long way toward deterring Iran, sending Tehran an important signal that the United States is deadly serious. Congress should have done this during the nuclear negotiations to give Washington greater leverage. But, alas, Congress passed no such measure, and, regardless, President Obama would have scoffed at such "19th-century thinking." That was the fundamental problem with the negotiations: Iran did not believe for one second that Obama would ever strike. So Iran's skilled negotiators could retain for their country the ability to obtain nuclear weapons while securing massive relief from sanctions, and, while they were at it, demand at the last minute the lifting of international bans on importing conventional arms and obtaining components for Iran's ballistic-missile program. The Iranians could get everything they wanted because there was nothing to fear. Maybe if Obama had a congressional mandate to attack Iran sitting on his desk, Iran would have been a bit more modest.

Congress would only do harm by handicapping the commander in chief, who needs to have some flexibility, and an array of options, to respond to threats from a hostile nation. The only party that would benefit from the amendment is the regime in Iran, which feasts on American weakness and yields in the face of direct confrontation.