If the president knows that Iran is waging war on us, he is obliged to respond; the only appropriate question is about the method, not the substance. If he does not know, then he should remove those officials who were obliged to tell him, and get some people who will tell the truth. They are not entitled to withhold information on the grounds that they don’t like the obvious policy implications. He must have that information, and he must be able to get more of it. The people in high positions of the intelligence community have demonstrably acted to limit his full knowledge of the war; the refusal to accept further information from proven sources of reliable information on Iran, all by itself, warrants a significant purge of Intelligence officials. As Bob Woodward suggests in State of Denial, there has been much more of that.
It is more likely that the president knows we are at war with Iran, but has chosen — wrongly, in my opinion (but then I wasn’t elected either) — to delay our response. That could be due to any number of reasons, ranging from a belief that he had to give the Europeans every chance to force the Iranians to abandon their nuclear project, to purely domestic calculations that he lacks sufficient political capital to directly challenge the mullahs. But whatever his reasoning, it reinforces the original failure of strategic vision that has characterized the Iraqi and Afghan enterprises from the beginning. Once you see that Iraq and Afghanistan are battlefields in a larger war, you must figure out how to win that war, and not the one that was drawn up on the Power Points before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, based on the false assumption that we would fight a series of limited wars, one country at a time.
At a minimum, the real war is a regional war, and most likely a world war. That becomes obvious as soon as you see that Iran, sometimes in tandem with Syria and with covert help from Saudi Arabia, is waging war on us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sponsoring terrorist assaults against us and our allies from Lebanon to Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, with their preferred instrument, Hezbollah, as the organizing army. But our national debate, with the exception of rare men like Senator Santorum, is limited to Iraq and Afghanistan alone, and thus our war plan is wrongly limited to Iraq and Afghanistan alone. If we expand our vision to the Middle East, current “hot topics” dissolve, because they are only urgent in answer to the wrong question. Instead of asking, “How do we win in Iraq and Afghanistan (and these are foolishly treated as if they were separate issues)?” we must instead ask, “How do we win the real war, the war against the terror masters?”
Iraq and Afghanistan are part of that war, but only a part of it. And we cannot win in Iraq and Afghanistan so long as the terror masters in Tehran and Damascus have a free shot at us and our democratic partners in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Israel, which is the current situation.
The debate over the appropriate number of American troops in Iraq is a typical example of how our failure of strategic vision distorts our ability to win the war. So long as the terror masters’ killers can freely cross the borders from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran in order to deliver money, weapons, expertise, and manpower, it is hard to imagine that any conceivable number of American soldiers could defeat them.
Lacking a regional strategy, our military is essentially fighting a holding action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is clearly a premium on avoiding casualties. Some critics have noticed that we have created large bases, complete with astonishing creature comforts including air conditioned tents and Starbucks cafes. The soldiers on those bases are rarely in the field; they wait until they get good intelligence about enemy movements, and then go after them. But that is not the proper way to fight this sort of war, and probably not even the best way to hold down casualties.
The best book I know on counterinsurgency was written by a Frenchman, David Galula, after his experiences in Algeria in the 1950s. He stresses that such a war is won or lost on the basis of popular support and cooperation. If the population supports the insurgents, they will win. Therefore, effective counterinsurgency requires the constant engagement of soldiers with the people, and a durable demonstration that we are there to stay, that once an area has been taken by our forces, it will remain so. That is also the best way to get good intelligence.
But time and again, we have moved into an area, killed lots of terrorists, and created a momentary stability, only to move on. This permits the terrorists to come back in, kill anyone who cooperated or sympathized with us, and compel the survivors to join the insurgency. The monster bases underline the distance between our troops and the people, which is precisely the opposite of a winning strategy. Galula puts the issue nicely: “As the war lasts, the war itself becomes the central issue, and the ideological advantage of the insurgent decreases considerably. The population’s attitude is dictated not by the intrinsic merits of the contending causes, but by the answer to these two simple questions: Which side is going to win? Which side threatens the most, and which offers the most protection?”
But the only way we can demonstrate we are going to win is to defeat the terror masters. Without that, the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan are entitled to doubt our ability to defeat the terrorists. And it is utterly misleading to claim that we will eventually be able to entrust the future of the war to Iraqi and Afghan forces. They cannot win a war by fighting on their own territory alone, any more than we can, no matter how effective they turn out to be.
The hell of it is that we act as if Iran and Syria were imposing regional forces, whereas they are actually very brittle dictatorships. Their tyrants are under constant pressure from their own people, and despite the run-up in oil revenues, both countries are in abysmal economic shape. The Japanese have just withdrawn their participation in a major Iranian oil field, in large part because of the high political risk.
Cheerful reports from captive Western journalists suggest that the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are popular leaders, but first hand accounts from émigrés and bloggers tell a very different story, and there are even online photographs attesting to substantial recent protests against the Iranian president. Like Ahmadinejad, Bashir Assad is not only unpopular, but has become an object of ridicule throughout the region, and there is every reason to believe that Western support for democratic revolution could succeed in both countries. Certainly, both Iran and Syria meet every criterion for social, economic and political revolution: the regimes are hated and despised, the people are suffering, and the denial of elementary human rights is a constant prod to revolt.
Revolutions rarely succeed without an outside base of support; just ask George Washington. Yet there is a regrettable tendency for our policymakers to dream that the Iranians will do it all by themselves. This is bad analysis, and worse policy. If, as Secretary Rice tells us, we do believe in spreading democracy in the Middle East, Iran is, and always has been, the best place to start. Nothing would help the prospects for a reasonable solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis so much as the downfall of the Tehran regime and its Siamese twin in Damascus. Indeed, like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is impossible to imagine freedom and security for the Palestinians so long as Khamanei and his ilk rule in Iran, and the Assad family dictatorships reigns in Syria.
But these considerations belong to a strategy to win the real war. As far as I can tell, we are very far from seeing the war plain and devising ways to win it. The first step is to embrace the unpleasant fact that we are at war with Iran, and it is long past time to respond.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. Ledeen’s wife has worked in the Senate Republican Conference under Rick Santorum.