Despite years of avoiding it at all costs, we have begun to respond to the attacks visited upon American soldiers and civilians by Iran and Syria over nearly 30 years. Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, have served notice on the Islamic Republic of Iran and Bashir Assad’s Syria that we will no longer tolerate their support for the terror war in Iraq. We have arrested officers from the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Baghdad and Irbil, apparently with considerable documentation of the mullahs’ support for both Sunni and Shiite terrorists.
Although the president and his associates speak as if the scales had suddenly fallen from their eyes, none of this evidence is breaking news; we have long known about Iranian and Syrian support for the terrorists. There was reliable intelligence about Iranian activities even before our troops entered Iraq. Bashir Assad publicly announced his intention to support a terror war, modeled on Lebanon in the 1980s. On several occasions — including the second battle of Fallujah and the subsequent battle in Hilla — American military found copious documentation of the Iranian and Syrian roles, including photographs of Iraqi terrorists with their Iranian and Syrian helpers. We have long possessed abundant evidence of Syrian terrorist training camps, and we have lots of information proving the complicity of the Syrian regime in the steady flow of terrorists from Syria to Iraq.
It therefore seems unlikely that the change in military tactics vis-a-vis the Revolutionary Guards came as a result of new intelligence. We did not suddenly realize that Iraq’s neighbors were up to no good; we already knew that. Yet, despite all the evidence, many American officials–Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, for example — worked very hard to prevent direct confrontation with Tehran and Damascus, hoping to find a diplomatic modus vivendi. Bob Woodward’s latest book contains several episodes when senior policymakers, fearing that the president and the vice president would quite reasonably consider them acts of war, prevented the White House from receiving explosive information about Iranian operations in Iraq.
They need not have worried; like every president since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 — when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared war on the United States — George W. Bush shied away from fighting back, in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. Indeed, we have been so determined to avoid responding to Iran’s attacks that, until the past two weeks, whenever Iranian intelligence and military officials were captured in Iraq, they were quietly sent back across the border.
We are now acting more vigorously — most of the Quds Force officers captured in Baghdad and Erbil are still being interrogated — but the reluctance persists. Although we have promised to destroy the networks that run into Iraq from Iran and Syria (carrying money, men and weapons with which to kill Coalition forces and Iraqi soldiers and civilians), our top officials swear we do not intend to strike inside Syria or Iran. We promise to limit our response to Iraq alone. Grudgingly conceding that it’s necessary to fight back against our enemies, we are straining to do it on the smallest possible scale. Call it the “little bit pregnant” policy. We’re fighting back at long last, but not enough to call it war.
Yet it is war, the real regional war we have not been willing to acknowledge. Surge or no surge, it is not possible to win this war by playing defense in Iraq alone, unless we find a way to either hermetically seal Iraq from Iranian and Syrian depredations, or convince the mullahs and the Assads to stop trying to drive us out. The hermetic seal is not in the cards, and why should our self-proclaimed enemies stop waging war on us when we pointedly leave them free to train terrorists and ship money, guidance and weapons into the battle zone? That is why some of us have advocated support for the tens of millions of Syrians and Iranians who wish to change the regimes in Tehran and Damascus, but democratic revolution has precious little support in Washington these days.
Common sense seems to dictate that we are obliged to do everything possible to protect our troops and advance the security of Iraq, but the “little bit pregnant” policy isn’t enough, as our leaders surely know. Iran has been waging war on us since 1979; will the mullahs call it off because some of their agents are arrested or killed outside Iranian borders?
No doubt the Bush administration worries about political fallout if the terrorist training camps or the IED assembly facilities are attacked. We all heard Senators Biden and Lugar, Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha demand assurances that we would not cross Iraq’s borders, even in hot pursuit of Iranian and Syrian killers. In other words, it’s quite all right for Iranians, Syrians, and jihadis to invade Iraq and kill Americans, but Americans are not permitted to respond in like manner. The administration should say that, but hasn’t.
The president would do well to remember Machiavelli’s advice to the prince: If you must inflict pain, it is best to do it all at once, and not try to mitigate it or do it bit by bit. The latter method always makes things worse, and ultimately requires greater violence, and more pain. Or, worse still, your defeat.