WASHINGTON - The last two presidents have misled voters on the cost of armed conflicts. Amid another election, the drumbeats of war are sounding again. This time the subject is Iran.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Here we go again.
There is a robust debate on the virtues and risks of trying to take out Iran's nuclear facilities. That discussion is taking place in Israel.
In the U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney parry over who has the smartest strategy for ensuring Iran doesn't obtain the enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon. Both candidates warn about the dangers of Iran becoming a nuclear power.
There is almost no discussion on the costs of a strike to take out that nuclear capacity - be it by Israel or the United States - in lives, money and regional and global standing.
This follows two unsatisfactory experiences over the past 10 years. In 2003, President George W. Bush said the invasion of Iraq was justified to remove Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. "It would not be that hard," Vice President Dick Cheney assured Americans.
It was hard and costly, and the weapons proved not to exist. More than 4,400 Americans were killed, and it cost more than $800 billion, while Iraq remains unstable and the region's more lethal threat, Iran, is empowered.
Four years ago, Obama declared that instead of Iraq, he would focus on the real problem: Afghanistan. More than 1,500 Americans have died since then at a cost of least of $400 billion. That country seems as corrupt and unstable as ever.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel says a pre-emptive strike against Iran is probably necessary and he resists any pressure from the U.S. government to hold off.
Obama doesn't believe the need for military action is imminent. Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, basically would give the Israelis a blank check.
Ten days ago, a high-level group of national-security experts offered some answers to the questions about cost and consequences that the candidates are avoiding. Called the Iran Project, the report was signed by more than 30 experts, including prominent Republicans such as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and ex-Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel. Also included were leading Democrats such as former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, as well as respected diplomats such as Frank Wisner and Thomas Pickering who served under Republican and Democratic administrations. The signatories also include retired military leaders, General Anthony Zinni and Admiral William Fallon, both former chiefs of the U.S. Central Command, which covers the Middle East. Zinni also was Bush's envoy to the region.
The Iran Project authors say flatly that "extended military strikes by the U.S. alone or in concert with Israel could destroy or severely damage the six most important nuclear facilities in Iran." An Israeli attack, they add, would delay the operation by two years, while more sophisticated U.S. capabilities would take it out for up to four years.
To prevent the Iranians from restarting, the report states the U.S. would need to conduct a "significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years." If the goal is regime change that would probably require the use of ground forces to occupy Iran. That would mean a commitment of resources and personnel "greater than what the U.S. has expended over the last 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined." Whatever course is chosen, the experts conclude that an attack on Iran would ensure retaliation. They anticipate efforts to close the Strait of Hormuz for days or weeks, with global economic implications, and asymmetrical attacks using surrogates such as Hezbollah on U.S. facilities in the region and beyond. Conceivably, it could set off a regional war.
The reaction on the Arab street, they suggest, would be very negative for U.S. interests, and for countries in the region such as Egypt. Moreover, they worry that a strike would strengthen, not weaken, the Iranian leaders' somewhat tenuous hold on their country.
Unlike in the U.S., there's a very open debate about all this in Israel, where a number of intelligence and military officials have publicly opposed Netanyahu's eagerness to strike. The most compelling opponent is Meir Dagan, who was the head of intelligence and special operations for Mossad for more than eight years.
In long interviews with the CBS television program "60 Minutes" and the New Yorker magazine, he enumerated the perils of Netanyahu's course. He says an Israeli strike would bolster the Iranian regime, which he argues is failing in its push to lead the Muslim world. In the interview with the New Yorker, he said that while Iran resumed its nuclear project about seven years ago, "the economic and diplomatic and covert pressure, led by America, obviates the need for any attacks now." Still, the Iran Project authors acknowledge that for the U.S. there are risks to any course of action. "The failure to attack and the decision to attack both could have some negative reputational consequences. The challenge then would be to determine which of those consequences are most probable, important and lasting."
Romney and Obama owe it to the American people to address that question over the next six weeks.
Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News.