President Trump may bluster about attacking Venezuela and his national security advisor John Bolton might rattle American sabers at Iran, but an attack on either country could be disastrous for the United States.
It is unlikely that the Venezuelan military will collapse before an American onslaught the way Saddam Hussein’s forces did in 2003. Even if Venezuela were initially defeated, they would adopt guerilla tactics and continue to fight on. Whatever the populace thinks of Nicolas Maduro — and he continues to retain the support of the poorer classes as well as much of the military — an invasion will rally them around him to confront the gringo enemy. Venezuela has an area greater than that of Texas; a significant force would be required to pacify and “reconstruct” the country, and the effort to do so would take years. American forces are both stretched thin by deployments around the world, and exhausted by the war in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
An assault on Venezuela would be a cakewalk, however, compared to an operation against Iran. Whatever hostility the Iranian populace harbors against the ayatollahs will pale in opposition to invading Americans. Nothing will do more to enflame Iranian patriotism than to be jnvaded by Western infidels. The Iranian military, and especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps, will not fade away before an American onslaught as the Iraqis did. It therefore would likely require hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground to dominate and pacify a population of over 80 million in a country four times the area of California.
At the same time, the United States would find itself alone in this fight. No ally will support an American president who has expressed so much disdain for his country’s long standing alliances. Moreover, the allies resent America’s backing out of the Iran nuclear arrangement (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).
Of course, Israel will cheer America on. Jerusalem bitterly opposed the JCPOA and has supported America’s policy of ever more tightened sanctions against Tehran. It may even offer its bases to American forces. In doing so, however, it will risk being the target of coordinated missile attacks from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza.
Moreover, every American death on the battlefield, every American who is wounded, will fuel ever increasing hostility to Israel among the American public. Even if it is Iran that initiates hostilities against the increasing American military presence in the Gulf, the war-weary American people may well blame Jerusalem for dragging the United States into another costly and prolonged Middle East conflict — and one that is unlikely to end in anything like a victory.
Finally, if a war with Iran unfolds in anything other than an American success, Trump is unlikely to accept blame for his misadventure. He never accepts blame. Instead he most likely would turn on Israel, and perhaps even American Jews, for instigating yet another American fiasco in the Middle East. Given the shocking rise in anti-Semitism in this country, this prospect should give pause to those who, for what they consider to be Israel’s sake, would urge an American military operation that is doomed to fail.
By Dov Zakheim
Dov S. Zakheim served as a U.S. Under Secretary of Defense (2001-2004) and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (1985-87).