Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The progressives’ reactions to President Trump’s elimination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s blood-soaked chief of their foreign adventurism, covered the whole range of clichés we can predict whenever this country acts vigorously to defend its interests and security. Iran, however, is a special case. For forty years, with a few exceptions our leaders have preemptively cringed in the face of Iranian aggression, conjuring up the specter of a widescale war in order to justify inaction. This bad habit has led to appeasing policies that have emboldened the mullahs into ever-increasing aggression in the region from Iraq to Syria to Yemen.
We will pass over the tedious virtue-signaling and juvenile comments of celebrities, antiwar activists with their trite jingles, and Democrat Media, Inc. As Churchill said of the Bolsheviks, the activists and media “hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins” of our political culture. But the responses of some Democrats reveal just of how fossilized their foreign policy thinking is.
The Democrats questioned the legality of the killing, or claimed it was a wag-the-dog distraction from impeachment. But fear-mongering is their favorite motif. Joe Biden, who opposed killing Osama bin Laden, claimed “we could be on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” His fellow primary candidate, Elizabeth Warren, read from the same script: Taking out Soleimani was “reckless,” and “our priority must be to avoid another costly war.” Ben Rhodes, an Obama minion, linked Soleimani’s killing to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which “averted a war,” a claim redolent of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.” He claims Trump’s withdrawal from the deal “started this dangerous cycle of escalation that we are still on.” And don’t forget the buffoonish AOC, who fretted, “The President engaged in what is widely being recognized as an act of war against Iran, one that now risks the lives of millions of innocent people.”
Then there are the usual calls for “diplomatic engagement” and “dialogue,” the corner-stone of the “postmodern” foreign policy promoted by the “rules-based international order” that, as Oxford’s Kalypso Nicolaides put it, favors “supranational constrains on unilateral polices” and “civilian forms of influence and action” over military ones. We saw these dubious, worn-out ideals in the criticism of George Bush for starting a war with Iraq in 2003, after a decade of Saddam Hussein’s violations of the “rules-based international order.” Short-lived presidential primary candidate Howard Dean chastised Bush’s “unilateralism,” and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war.”
So of course, we are hearing the same bromides from the font of all received wisdom, the New York Times, which advised that Trump “lessen tensions by opening some form of dialogue with Iran,” and stop demonizing the world’s worst state-sponsor of terrorism “as the premier evildoer in the Middle East.” As if Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran––which poured $150 billion into the mullahs’ war chest and put the regime on a glide-path to nuclear-tipped missiles––had been such a success. On the contrary, as the Federalist’s Ben Weingarten writes, “The irony is that those now hysterical in adamantly arguing that President Trump’s strike is going to lead to a massive conflagration in the Middle East were directly responsible for aiding, abetting, and enabling Iran to such an extent that it could pose such a threat.”
But we shouldn’t exaggerate Iran’s military prowess, as we have done from the beginning of our conflict with Iran, and as antiwar Democrats and Leftists have done in subsequent conflicts like the First Gulf War in 1991, the second in 2003, and Afghanistan in 2001. Jimmy Carter set the tone in 1979 with his flabby reaction to the hostage crisis, partly because of his naïve human rights campaign and American guilt over its Cold War foreign policy of supposedly coddling dictators.
Thus was established the Iran Cringe: conditioning our foreign policy regarding the theocracy on fear of how they might react, and the unknown consequences that might follow. It’s true that during the Cold War, we had to calculate the possible responses of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. But while we cringed during the hostage crisis, fearful to respond with force, the Soviet Union boldly invaded Afghanistan, no doubt encouraged by our reticence and indifferent to our, or the UN’s, scolding.
We see the same contradiction today with Iran. While we fret over possible reactions to our destroying the assets and leaders of a country that has declared war on us and killed our troops, tiny Israel has launched over a 1000 airstrikes at will against Iranian troops and matériel in Syria––59 attacks in 2019. What’s been Iran’s response? So far, their proxies launch missiles easily intercepted by Israel’s antimissile defense systems, while the mullahs launch braggadocios threats.
The difference is Israel is feared because it always punishes aggression with force, whereas for decades we have accepted Iran’s murder of our soldiers and citizens, responding at best with bluster at the UN and flabby economic sanctions. The one exception was the Tanker War of the late Eighties, when Ronald Reagan sent our navy to destroy Iranian naval vessels and mine-layers, and Revolutionary Guards bases on oil platforms to stop Iran’s targeting of international shipping during its war with Iraq. The success of that intervention in changing Iran’s behavior should be a model of how to respond to its aggression.
In any case, Iran is in no condition to fight a war with the most powerful military in history. The regime is weak, its economy battered by tough sanctions that have cut its oil exports by two-thirds, reduced its GDP by 10%, raised unemployment to 17%, cut in half its currency’s value, and raised the cost of living 35%. Iran is also globally isolated, its ally of convenience Russia unlikely to go to war on its behalf, just as it done nothing about Israel’s attacks in Syria. Its people have been regularly protesting in the streets against the mullahs, with the regime’s goons killing over 1500 of them. The people in the streets are unlikely to rally around the regime because its Luca Brasi has been vaporized. The threat to use oil as a weapon, which was so effective until the last decade, won’t work today, since Iran’s exports are down drastically, and the fracking revolution in the U.S. has made Middle East oil imports problematic for the EU and China, but not for us. And if Trump ratchets up secondary sanctions, which proscribe U.S. trade with countries doing business with Iran, its economy will plummet even faster.
More important, war isn’t even necessary for deterring Iran from further aggression. As long as Trump understands that retaliation to be effective should be disproportionate and serially escalate, eventually the Iranians will have to cry Uncle Sam. A good place to start would to target an oil refinery, or one of their three terminals for shipping oil, which would further damage the Iranian economy.
More immediately, we should respond to the launching of more than a dozen missiles against two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops on Tuesday. Contrary to speculation that they were intended to avoid American casualties, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Defense Secretary credited the military’s early-warning system and normal defensive procedures saved lives. Either way, those missile batteries should have been destroyed. Iran has a long record of interpreting our restraint as weakness and inducement to further attacks––a game we’ve been playing for 40 years, with the result that Iran continues its aggression and moves closer and closer to possessing nuclear weapons. Restraint now just once again delays the inevitable reckoning Iran must suffer to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Finally, as Trump has said repeatedly, he does not want a war or regime change in Iran. He campaigned against “endless wars” in Middle Eastern dysfunctional countries riven by premodern tribal, clan, and sectarian conflicts. The problem with this stance, apart from telling the enemy your limits, is that we already are at war with Iran––one it declared 40 years ago and reaffirms with regular public chants of “Death to America” and the murder of our citizens.
And that war is not just a war of revenge for the U.S.’s support of the Shah and his modernizing, liberalizing policies. Nor is it a conflict that more negotiation, as Trump keeps suggesting, is going to end. That conflict is a front in Iran’s larger jihad against the West and what the faithful see as its aggression against Islam. The Quds Force once led by Soleimani is the vanguard of this jihad begun by the Ayatollah Khomeini. “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” Khomeini announced. “Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there shall be struggle.” Hence Iran has created numerous proxy militias and terrorists across the Middle East and beyond to achieve this aim. One of its first was Hezbollah, which murdered 241 of our military personnel in 1983––an act of war, by the way, that Ronald Reagan failed to punish.
Moreover, a strategy of retaliation that becomes increasingly disproportionate necessarily has to accept that a full-blown war is the final move if the enemy remains stubborn. Iran has many proven ways and means of retaliating: taking foreign hostages; hacking our government computers; attacking military bases, oil infrastructure, and embassies; targeted assassinations of our civilian and military leaders; and terrorist attacks on our allies in the region and the homeland. Any and all of these will have to be answered much more severely than we have responded to such aggression in the past.
And that brings us to the most important question of all: Are the American people ready to accept the unforeseen consequences, the inevitable collateral damage, and the casualties that will follow a strategy of incrementally severe retaliation? Can they accept what Lincoln called the “awful arithmetic,” the tragic calculus that some must die today so that more don’t die later? A loss of morale that makes isolationism attractive is the only way Iran can win in this conflict and force us from the region, which would endanger our security and interests. Whether we like it or not, we are the indispensable power in this interconnected world, our two oceans no longer sufficient for keeping us secure, and free from “foreign entanglements.”
We can’t gamble with American lives that “something will turn up” to keep nukes out of the mullahs’ hands, or the regime will collapse under its own corrupt weight, or some diplomatic magic will secure a peace-deal with murderous fanatics. With Iran imploding economically and facing internal resistance, now is the best opportunity for kicking away the last rotted timbers of the mullahcracy. The first step is to stop cringing in the face of its aggression.