The era of ‘measured response’ against Iran is over
Iran and the United States have been at undeclared war for 40 years
What many feared was another Benghazi on New Year’s Eve ended as a smashmouth expression of common sense. As The Wall Street Journal put it: “the nation is at a crossroads.” But is it good for the United States to be at this crossroads? It definitely is, according to a retired brigadier general who spent a year embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga in 2006.
“The missile attack on K1, a U.S. base in Kirkuk on Dec. 27 crossed a bright red line, and the Iranians knew it,” says Ernie Audino in an interview. But that attack was part of a pattern and it was a walk-up to a massive attack on several U.S. installations in the region, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The strike was not an impulsive shot from the hip at all. “We did not act to start a war but to stop a war,” the president said the next day.
Interviews in the following days with State Department heads revealed that the secret attack had been tracked by U.S. intelligence for weeks. During most of 2019, Iran had subjected the American military to a series of tests: Attacks against 600 ships, the shooting down of the U.S. drone, the drone attack on Saudi oil fields, then firing missiles into Kirkuk on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor and, finally, emerging evidence that Iran was about to drop a historic assault on U.S diplomats and servicemen in three countries.
Does the strike make it harder for the government in Baghdad to avoid being completely co-opted by Iran hardliners? No.
“The Government of Iraq has been co-opted by Iran for years,” says a Shia intelligence analyst who worked with the U.S. coalition during the occupation years. The strike on Soleimani doesn’t markedly change the disposition of Iraq, he said.
True, the Iranians will respond to exact revenge for the death of their terror heroes. The United States can anticipate the response by taking two prudent steps, Mr. Audino said: “First, the United States needs to increase the numbers of troops stationed in Iraq to enhance force protection of American assets and allies in country and to increase our ability to compel Iranian proxies on the ground. Second, the Administration should seriously reconsider U.S. aid dedicated to training and equipping the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Why? Because the ISF now includes Iranian-proxy Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) units. Two years ago the Tehran dominated Iraqi Parliament formally incorporated the PMF into the ISF. How on earth is it in the U.S. interest to help arm and equip our adversary? Keep in mind, Qassim Soleimani boasted last year that ‘the Iraqi army has become a Hezbollah army.’
“There is no need to take that military aid worth $1.4 billion off the table. But send it to our loyal and effective ally, the Kurdish Peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government,” he said.
Is Mr. Trump a “loose cannon, maniac, trigger happy?” No, far from it. The president is a strategic thinker. By all appearances, the president had a deliberate strategy to encircle and reduce Iranian military threat three years ago with his first overseas trips, first to Riyadh, then Jerusalem and to Rome. The president jumped out of the blocks in 2017 and, determined to build his coalition for ending the nightmare of the ISIS caliphate, first, and to neutralize the threat of Iran, the world’s deadliest state-sponsor of terrorism, second. Since the caliphate stopped holding real estate even in Syria in early 2019, Iran became the top priority in the region.
Does the strike on Soleimani put Americans more at risk of an all-out hot war with Iran? Possibly, but not likely. That is the claim of 70 anti-Trump protests that surfaced over the weekend as well as the conservative backers of the White House who are split on whether the president has allowed the so-called war hawks to stampede him into another land war.
But consider: Iran and the United States have been at undeclared war for 40 years. If the White House had opted to stand back and wait for Soleimani’s masterpiece attack, would Iran have remained less a threat than it is now? No. In fact, a devastating strike on U.S. installations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria would have itself triggered a hot war.
But the strike against Iran’s top terrorist commanders, Qassem Soleimani and his deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was a game changer. It exacted a price for bad actors at the top of the geopolitical food chain who have hidden behind bureaucratic cover for years. The Trump administration policy will impose a cost on the decision makers who unleash lethal asymmetric warfare on Americans, Mr. Pompeo told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sunday. As far as terror masterminds are concerned, the era of “measured response” is over.
• Douglas Burton is an independent reporter who specializes in ISIS-related terrorism and is a former State Department official who served in Iraq during the U.S. occupation of that country.