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Worried about aggravating Iran, the United States has announced that it is postponing missile-defense drills with Israel. Dubbed “Austere Challenge 12,” the exercises had been planned for months and were intended to send a clear message that the United States and Israel were prepared to protect themselves from Iran’s mushrooming missile threat. In fact, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month pointed to the exercises as evidence of America’s “unshakable” commitment to Israel. Now that the exercises have been delayed, the mullahs are getting a very different message.
A U.S. European Command official assures us that “It is not unusual for such exercises to be postponed,” which is true. But timing is everything when dealing with aggressors. Washington’s intentions are good—to avert an accidental war—but the perception in Tehran is that Washington blinked. That means the mullahs won this round. And as with all aggressors, that emboldens them and encourages them to push harder, to take more risks and to make dangerous miscalculations that invite the very thing Washington is trying to avoid.
One recalls how the Carter administration reacted to Moammar Qaddafi’s unilateral claim over the Gulf of Sidra, a huge chunk of the Mediterranean Sea universally considered as international waters. Anyone who crossed Qaddafi’s so-called “line of death” in the Gulf of Sidra would face military attack. President Carter canceled annual freedom-of-navigation naval exercises in and around the Gulf of Sidra to avoid confrontation and to keep things calm in the region.
But the message Qaddafi heard was that America was weak, and so he pushed and miscalculated. U.S. intelligence soon unearthed evidence that Libyan agents were planning to hit Marine One with a heat-seeking missile; Libya was caught red-handed sending tons of military hardware to communist forces in Nicaragua; and Qaddafi’s army of terrorists was at work all around the globe.
Vowing to enforce the principle of freedom of the seas, President Reagan ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet to resume its exercises. When the exercises began in the autumn of 1981, Qaddafi lived up to his word and sent several warplanes into international airspace to enforce his line of death. Authorized, in Reagan’s words, to pursue attacking Libyan warplanes “all the way into the hangar,” U.S. F-14s responded with deadly force and made it clear to Qaddafi that there would be no payoff for recklessly disregarding international norms—only costs. “We sent a message to Qaddafi,” Reagan said. “We weren’t going to allow him to declare squatter’s rights over a huge area of the Mediterranean in defiance of international law.”
The moral of the story is that in international relations, every action and non-action sends a message. The postponement of Austere Challenge 12 sends the wrong message. Just when the pressure was building on the mullahs—on the economic front, in the Strait of Hormuz, vis-à-vis European energy imports, at the IAEA—Washington put Austere Challenge 12 on hold and relieved the pressure.
It’s important to note that these U.S.-Israel exercises were wholly defensive. As The Washington Post reports, they were “designed to test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets.”
Think about that. These weren’t provocative naval maneuvers off Iran’s coast or massive air exercises feigning attacks across the skies of the Middle East. These were missile-defense exercises designed to test U.S.-Israeli forces in deflecting inbound missile threats.
Defense is the operative word here. To cut through all the relativistic confusion, consider this everyday example: Which one of the following would you call provocative—a cop strapping on a bullet-proof vest or a gunman loading his weapon?
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