Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch showed a remarkable lack of circumspection in a dangerous situation last week.
First, the U.S. assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani with a drone strike in Iraq. Iran retaliated with missile strikes on the base from which the attack was launched, but it appears the missiles were targeted to avoid casualties.
In the midst of the confusion, Risch began loudly beating the drums of war.
“As hard as it is to accept, I don’t think the president has any choice of where we are,” Risch told KTVB. “The other way we could do it would be to run up the white flag and turn our backs and run. I think for our reputation in the world, our interests in the world, I just don’t think we can do that.”
Risch reversed himself a few hours later. But it was deeply irresponsible to make such statements in the first place.
The tensions between the U.S. and Iran alone have probably already led to scores of innocent deaths. Last week Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner, filled mostly with its own citizens, killing 176 civilians.
The weight of the evidence, as western intelligence agencies have concluded, is that the shooting was an accident made while Iran was uncertain whether the U.S would launch a broader attack.
(If you think it’s unlikely that Iran accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, it’s worth remembering 1988, another time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. That year, the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians. While Americans have mostly forgotten this event, it is seared in Iranian consciousness.)
These are the predictable consequences of heightened tensions: miscalculations leading to escalation and the loss of innocent life.
This is why Risch should avoid heightening tensions, as he did on KTVB. Would an Iranian intelligence analyst, perhaps unfamiliar with the full context and Risch’s penchant for bragging about his top-secret clearance, read the statements of the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and conclude that the U.S. had just declared war? That’s particularly true when he makes vague intimations like, “They’re going to have a bad day here pretty quickly,” and, “It really needs to come from the official source so that rumors don’t start.”
If the situation does tip toward war — and despite some positive signs of de-escalation at present, the situation could reverse at any moment — the consequences of that are predictable, too. There will be military casualties, but the weight of every war falls upon the innocent. Children dying over hours trapped in collapsed buildings. Pregnant mothers with shrapnel in their bellies. Old men killed by drones for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Families wasting away as food, clean water and medicine run out. Choosing war means choosing this.
Tens of thousands of civilians died this way in Afghanistan as did hundreds of thousands in Iraq.
These are the stakes, and they are too high to leave up to the executive branch alone. The framers of the Constitution placed the power to make war in the legislative branch’s hands. But Congress is more at fault than presidents for the effective concentration of that power in the executive. It has been weak-willed and complacent.
Risch, along with Sen. Mike Crapo, should do as Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky have done and pledge support for the House’s War Powers Act resolution blocking further hostilities against Iran without congressional approval. At the very least, Risch should consider the consequences before he declares war inevitable.
This editorial was published by the Post Register of Idaho Falls.