Never is wisdom more requisite in a president than in time of war. Abraham Lincoln was perhaps America's wisest war president and should remain a beacon to his successors.
Late in 1861, there was a public clamor for war with England when the Republic was already bogged down in a horrible fratricidal war, the outcome of which was by no means certain.
Incensed that a United States Navy ship party boarded a British packet and illegally removed two Confederate diplomats bound for Europe, Lord Palmerston sent 8,000 additional troops to Canada preparing for war with the US. More than a few Americans, including Secretary of State William Seward, wanted to give the British a thumping at a time when the bulk of the US military was tied down in a continental civil war.
Now, as the White House and Pentagon reportedly contemplate war with Iran, it is instructive to recall President Lincoln's response to his secretary of State, "One war at a time, Mr. Seward."
In 2001, the US launched a justifiable war against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Two years later, the Bush administration launched a far more dubious war in Iraq. Neither conflict has ended in victory. Both are ongoing. With those two wars on the front burner, why is anyone considering three wars at a time?
Bombing Iran now seems no more likely to produce positive results in Southwest Asia than the Nixon-Kissinger massive bombing of Hanoi produced an American victory in Vietnam. Surgical bombing of Iraq after the first Gulf War didn't topple Saddam Hussein. That required a brilliantly executed full-scale US military invasion in 2003. (It's the occupation that ran amok.)
While it seems clear that an American war with Iran might be in Israel's interest, it is not necessarily so. Some in Saudi Arabia might like to see rival Iran pummeled by the US military. But the US should not fight proxy wars for Saudi Arabia or Israel, and it's debatable if either would ultimately be safer in the long run after a US attack on Iran.
Historically, Iranians see themselves as one of two great Asian military powers, the other being China. Launching a few cruise missiles or bombing uranium-enrichment plants will probably only fuel Iran's historic ambition to become a regional superpower. An Iranian I spoke with in Tehran five years ago unabashedly admired the US. But he strongly affirmed his country's right to acquire nuclear weapons as a matter of national pride. After all, he said, "The Pakistanis and the Israelis have them."
Both Moscow and Washington have made the same two policy errors in Southwest Asia in the past 30 years. They tried to occupy rigidly Muslim countries and reshape tribal Islamic societies, tailoring them to their respective Western ideologies. Both superpowers grossly misjudged the powerful hold religion has over Muslims, and they expected Afghans and Iraqis to embrace secular communism or Western democracy. The Russians failed, and America's prospects don't appear much better.
Perhaps the most egregious error policy planners make is their assumption that once wars are started, their outcome is predictable. Who among the Politburo mossbacks in 1979 could have foreseen that the Soviet military venture in Afghanistan would become a major factor in the collapse and death of the Soviet Union? Mr. bin Laden and much of the Muslim world take full credit for the Soviet implosion after Moscow's defeat there. Wars simply do not end the way those who launch them expect. Iraq was supposed to be quick and clean, and Iraqis, we were told, would welcome their American liberators. The Taliban, ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, has risen again like a phoenix.
President Bush should begin with the premise that war with Iran is not an option and the realization that constructive engagement may well be the labor of decades. That may not prevent Iran from building a bomb. But states that join the nuclear club, India, Pakistan, and China, have historically tended to behave more, not less responsibly, and treaties between adversarial states have worked.
Second, because of the brief time Bush has left in office, it is a given that Washington's problem with Tehran will not be solved while Mr. Bush is in office, bombing or not bombing.
Third, the White House should remember the West's profound frustrations in trying to engage the Soviets in the first 25 years after World War II. A virulently hostile Stalin malevolently tried to provoke the United States in Korea, Berlin, and elsewhere. But decades of patience by wise American presidents and diplomats slowly engaged the Russians, and over four decades gradually defused the cold war. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan all lived and worked with belligerent communism. In the modern world, greatness is more often a consequence of wise restraint and measured responses such as economic sanctions. Restraint over Iran married to engagement on a broad front could well be Bush's greatest foreign-policy legacy.
No one now can predict the scope, let alone the duration or cost, of the war that would ensue if the White House launches attacks on Iranian targets. But the absurdity of thinking that war with Iran would resolve much is illustrated in the following truism from an Iranian friend: "In Iraq, the leadership loves the Americans, and the Iraqi people have killed close to 4,000 American soldiers. By contrast, in Iran, the leadership hates Americans but the people generally like them." This is the conundrum the Bush administration should consider as it reportedly calls on the Pentagon to revisit a battle plan for attacking Iran.
One sad consequence of bombing might well be a rallying of the Iranian people around their flagging leadership, boosting popular support for an unpopular regime. You can almost hear Iran's neoconservative leadership saying, "Make my day."
• Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN.