LONDON - Many people listen to the White House these days and conclude that a U.S. attack on Iran is imminent: "To be quite honest, I'm a little concerned that it's Iraq again," as Sen. John Rockefeller, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said recently. But if President Bush gives the order, then Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will face a big decision.
Some senior U.S. soldiers were worried about the strategic wisdom and even the legality of invading Iraq, but nobody resigned over it. It was obvious that the U.S. would win the actual war quickly and cheaply, and almost nobody worried about the aftermath. But an attack on Iran is different, even though it would not involve American ground troops (since all available U.S. combat troops are committed to Iraq), because any competent general knows that this is a war the United States cannot win.
Air strikes alone cannot win a war, however massive they are, and they probably could not even destroy all of Iran's nuclear facilities, which are numerous, dispersed, and often deeply buried. Many Iranians would be killed, but what would the U.S. do next? It would have very few options, whereas Iran would have many.
Iran could flood Iraq with sophisticated weapons and send volunteers to help the fight against U.S. forces there. It could throw international markets into turmoil by halting its own oil exports. It could try to close the entire Persian Gulf to tanker traffic (with a fair chance of success), and throw the entire world economy into crisis. And any further U.S. air strikes would simply harden Iranians' resolve.
So would General Pace attack Iran if Mr. Bush ordered him to? His only alternative would be to resign, but he does have that option. Senior officers like General Pace, while still bound by the code of military discipline, acquire a political responsibility as well. Like cabinet ministers, they cannot oppose a government decision while in office, but they have the right and even the duty to resign rather than carry out a decision that they believe to be disastrous.
The resignation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and possibly several of the other chiefs as well - would be an immensely powerful gesture. It could stop an attack on Iran dead in its tracks, for the White House would have to find other officers who would carry out its orders. It would doubtless find them, but such a shocking event might finally enable Congress to find its backbone and refuse support for another illegal and foredoomed war.
This is not a hypothetical discussion: My guess is that both the Joint Chiefs and the White House understand that the option of resignation is on the table. Consider the dance that was done around the question of Iran and "Explosively Formed Penetrators" in the past couple of weeks. (EFPs are glorified shaped-charge weapons that can penetrate armor at a considerable distance. Most major armies have had them for several decades.)
On Feb. 11, U.S. officials in Baghdad claimed that the EFPs that have killed some 170 American troops in Iraq since 2004 were Iranian-made, and supplied to Iraqi insurgents by "the highest levels of the Iranian government." White House spokesman Tony Snow picked up the theme, insisting that they were being supplied by the Quds unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. "The Quds Force is, in fact, an official arm of the Iranian government and, as such, the government bears responsibility and accountability for its actions," he said.
Familiar stuff from the run-up to the Iraq war - but then something unscripted happened. Gen. Peter Pace, visiting in Australia, said that Iranian government involvement was not proven: "We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit." A day later, in Jakarta, he repeated his doubts: "What [the evidence] does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers."
Generals as experienced as General Pace do not contradict their political masters by accident. The White House got the message, and retreated a bit.
There is a civil-military confrontation brewing in the United States more serious than anything that has been seen since President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. But this time, if the general acts on his convictions, he will be in the right.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.