Ira Straus

Biden: Iran’s Free to Escalate; We’ll Stay Passive

Faced with the latest attack from Iranian proxies, the Biden team has spoken up – about what it will not do.

John Kirby: “We don’t want a wider war with Iran. We don’t want a wider war in the region, but we got to do what we have to do.”

Translation: We gotta do something to get our outraged public off our backs. But we really don’t wanna do anything.

Antony Blinken: “We want to avoid broader escalation.”

Translation: The other side can go on escalating. As long as we don’t do the escalating ourselves, we won’t have anything to feel guilty about.

Self-Demoralizing Dogmas

It has become demoralizing to keep hearing these self-destructive lines from our government. For relief, let’s listen to some more serious voices:

Bradley Bowman, Foundation for Defense of Democracies: “Our adversaries hear (proportionate retaliation) as a green light for their aggression.”

Nikki Haley: We have to cut out this “proportionate retaliation” nonsense and do something for real.

A number of Iranian oppositionists have said this: Proportionate retaliation just helps the Iranian regime rally people around it at home. It gets it out of the deep political hole it has been in.

General Kenneth F. McKenzie: “It’s not possible for us to neutralize all these (proxy) threats… We should consider ways that we might put increased pressure on Iran, the very source of all these problems, rather than engage in endless tactical-level tit-for-tat operations across the region.”

Rebeccah Heinrichs, Hudson Institute: “It is a bizarre habit of this White House to overshare what it is going to do to the enemy. A surprise attack obviously gives us better odds. It is a maddening hallmark of this administration’s approach in responding to aggression. It seems to think by allaying the fears of our enemies, communicating that we won’t hurt them ‘too badly,’ they won’t hit us back ‘too much.’ We should be making our enemies fear us. We have the overwhelming advantage. We have got to start acting like it or it will keep getting worse.”


Needed: a military response with a real objective, not for retaliation

Iran has set a serious political-strategic objective for its proxies: to drive the U.S. forces out of the Mideast, turning the rout in Afghanistan into a general rout, and pushing the U.S. toward falling into a spiral of decline. That’s why it encourages its proxies to go on striking at the U.S. forces. That’s why it provides them with the weapons and targeting-intelligence to do it. And it might succeed. Iraq has already talked of yielding to this pressure and throwing the U.S. out.

The U.S., by contrast, has not set any serious political-strategic objective for its military responses. Its only stated objectives are to avoid escalation but hit back a bit because it “has to”.

By our setting these terms for our response, we have given ourselves a guarantee against winning. We have also given ourselves a good chance of losing outright and getting driven out of the region – losing quite unnecessarily, to enemies who are far weaker than ourselves.


Getting out from under the weight of our self-destructive doctrine

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can set different terms — positive objectives for our military — and win. We have ample military capability for it. It requires only one thing: a president who is an activist not a passivist. One who is not ashamed of achieving positive political-strategic objectives by the use of military force.

John Bolton has, not surprisingly, been forthright with a list of real objectives. Sink Iran’s navy. Take out Iran’s drone program. Degrade its nuclear program. Smash the Quds force. Smash the entire Revolutionary Guard – the IRGC. Topple the regime.

The choice of objectives must be made against the backdrop of the reality that if Iran is left with its Islamist regime and its nuclear weapons program intact, it will almost certainly get nuclear weapons within a couple years. In that case the world will be a much more dangerous place for us and for our allies: dangerous not only for facing a new nuclear danger, but dangerous for a skillful mass-scale state sponsor of terrorism becoming able to back up with terrorist proxies with a nuclear deterrent force.

This indicates that toppling the regime and denuclearizing it are necessary objectives. They will not be at all painless to do at this late date. But failure will be far more painful.

This is the last chance to prevent a nuclear Iran. If the President will not protect our country and our allies from this existential danger, except if given an immediate provocation and casus belli – well, he has the best provocation and casus in the course of the last two months that he could ever hope for. It is time for him to think straight about the big picture and act rationally.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
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