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Where to Stand and Fight
Defining America's defensive perimeter before Iran's nuclear program goes too far.


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Security Council Resolution 1696 ordered Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. Iran’s decision to ignore the resolution — which it is treaty-bound to obey — essentially abrogated the U.N. Charter, and should have been considered an act of war by those countries it has declared to be its enemies, chiefly Israel and the United States.

But today, nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States is clueless about where the nation’s new defensive perimeter lies. Neither we nor our enemies have any idea where we will stand and fight.

Since the nation’s founding, American foreign policy has had to transform itself every few generations to face a new world. Sometimes, as after the War of 1812 or at the start of the Cold War, it takes only a few years to understand and define the new perimeter and come up with the resources to defend it. But sometimes the plan makes no sense and the resources to back it are not provided. This condition can go on for decades, as it did as with America’s emergence as a Great Power at the start of the 20th century, until a great tragedy results, and we are forced to fight, at great cost and great disadvantage, to recapture those ramparts we should have been ready to defend all along. 

It’s obvious that the post-Cold War situation falls into the latter category. The U.S. has assembled awesome military power, but we still don’t know what we’re committed to defending. Iran’s nuclear-weapons development is proceeding at full tilt, and we have no idea when or even if we should be prepared to stop it. We no longer know what our commitments are, or whether we have the assets to back them up.

With the exception of our vertiginous demobilization after World War II — which led directly to the Korean War — how the U.S. adjusted to the Cold War is an example of how to do it right. We forged strategic alliances at the European and Pacific perimeters of the free world, and boldly put U.S. forces down on the borders. With George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” from Embassy Moscow in 1946, and Paul Nitze’s brilliant State Department memorandum “NSC-68” a few years later, our policy became crystal-clear. If the Soviet Union crossed the borders of any of our allies, it would mean World War III — and if they used nuclear weapons, there was no choice but all-out nuclear retaliation. Nobody in America debated the risks of action vs. the risks of inaction. World bodies did not declaim against our foreign policy. People knew what the republic’s ramparts were. And the policy articulated in “NSC-68” called for a massive increase in military capability to make the new ramparts unassailable.

The difficulty for our government now is that our new security environment is so much more vast — and vastly complicated — than any we have ever faced. The new defensive perimeter has less to do with geographic borders and more to do with destabilizing capabilities and activities. Should we use force to prevent Iran from gaining enrichment and reprocessing capabilities? Or should Iran’s pulling out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty be the trigger for war? In neither situation would the use of force enjoy clear international legitimacy — but those may be our only rational choices if we are to avoid living in a world where the danger of nuclear terrorism is ever-present.

The most glaring omission in the president’s National Security Strategy is a precise definition of our new defensive perimeter in terms that international law can accommodate. We must define those things we consider to be acts of aggression, and begin transforming our concepts of international law accordingly. Today there is no conceivable national security strategy that can be both rational and “legitimate.”

But ours is neither — and it has to be both. The reason is that our first lines of defense now lie in the governing practices of other countries, most vitally what I would call “regime transparency.” And without proper international norms to shape regime behavior in non-threatening ways, we are leaving our defensive perimeter both undefined and undefended.

We should not be weighing the risks of action vs. the risks of inaction with Iran’s nuclear program, any more than we would have responded to Soviet incursions across the West German border on a case-by-case basis. We must stand ready to do whatever it takes to prevent widespread proliferation and the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack. If our military forces are not now capable of the effort, we must make them capable. And having marked the perimeter, we must stand ready to fight and win.

We must make it clear that Iran will trigger a military confrontation if it continues along its current path — one of open confrontation and strategic aggression. This will be the only way to secure peace without accepting defeat on one of the most vital ramparts of our defense.

Meanwhile, time is running out for the United States to understand its new perimeter and man the defenses.

 – Mario Loyola, a former consultant to the Department of Defense, is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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