When news of the killing of three US Soldiers stationed in Jordan broke, a chorus of politicians and pundits called for America to “deal with Iran.” Meanwhile, social media were inundated with a flood of ancient video footage: clips of George H.W. Bush announcing the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, three carriers sailing side by side in formation, F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers streaking through the sky, and the 3rd Armored Division cutting through Iraqi forces like a hot knife through butter. The Iranians had made a big mistake, these videos declared, in effect. Look at America.

But that America is a mirage: George H.W. Bush died more than five years ago; the F-117 Nighthawk has been taken out of service and parked in the boneyard; of the 11 nuclear carriers officially in service now, only nine work, and half of those are unavailable due to maintenance, personnel shortfalls, and a lack of carrier air wings; and the 3rd Armored Division was deactivated in 1992—one of the first casualties of the post-Cold War drawdown. The fact that influential voices are calling for a massive escalation of hostilities in the Middle East as if none of this ever happened is only the latest evidence of a disturbing disconnect between the media-constructed simulacrum of American power and the reality on the ground.

Fantasies about American strength would come crashing down very quickly in the case of a serious escalation with the Tehran regime. To attack the Islamic Republic from the ground, US forces would have to invade it from a neighboring country and maintain supply lines to and through that country. Simply looking at a map makes clear that Washington doesn’t have great options for pulling this off. But without that option, decisive victory of the sort once achieved in Iraq is implausible. Airpower on its own has an atrocious track record of forcing the enemy to surrender, and Iran is a mountainous country with nearly 90 million inhabitants. The United States doesn’t have enough bombs to turn Tehran into Dresden, but even if it did, it is unclear what the point of that would be.

Making matters worse, the prospects for waging effective air war don’t look strong, either. The one carrier on station—the Eisenhower—is in the Red Sea fighting the Houthis. That leaves ground-based aviation, but the chances of any Gulf Arab state allowing the United States to stage an air campaign against Iran from its territory are small at present. The fact that the majority of the Muslim world is outraged over US support for Israel makes it problematic enough for any Gulf Arab ruler to help America attack Iran. Then, too, Washington has a track record of growing bored with its wars and leaving its “security partners” to deal with the wreckage. There isn’t a lot America can do except symbolic strikes.

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