Supporters of the war on terror — the global war against jihadists as distinguished from its isolated battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan — were surely heartened last night by President Bush's monitory words for Iran and Syria. The president declared with apparent boldness:
"Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Sounds great. But there is less there than meets the ear — maybe much less.
At a background briefing before the president's speech, administration officials, quite appropriately, refused to get into what the new strategy for dealing with Iran and Syria precisely entails. But it was fairly clear that military steps outside Iraq are highly unlikely.
An official pointedly explained that, while the violence in Iraq is being "fiercely stoked" by Iran and Syria, the mayhem would not end even if the Iranian and Syrian influence were to disappear.
True enough, but still, this is a very strange distinction to draw. Material support is, after all, material support. Under the Bush Doctrine as articulated in September 2001, it is supposed to be met with a vigorous American response because we deem rogue regimes to be just like the terrorists they abet. Patently, in the case of Iran and Syria, we have not done that. In turning away from the Bush Doctrine in this most essential of its potential applications, we have turned away from the blueprint for winning the war — not the Battle of Baghdad but the War on Terror.
More importantly, though, this is not a zero-sum game. It is not a case in which, if the Iranian/Syrian influence were, say, 30 percent of the problem, subtracting it would leave the same 70 percent we face now.
No, even if you wish, for argument's sake, to consider the war as existing only in Iraq, dealing decisively with these terror-facilitators would have a dynamic effect on the insurgency. It could be the difference between how the United States was perceived in the first six or so shock-and-awe months after the March 2003 invasion and how American resolve was seen in the ensuing three years — characterized by temporizing in Falluja, negotiating with terrorists (even some affiliated with al Qaeda), and abiding the provocations of Tehran and Damascus.
Thankfully, the president has not gone for the frivolous Iraq Study Group notion of direct negotiations with these enemy nations. All signs, however, are that nuance rather than unambiguous resolve is still the note we are trying to hit.
Administration thinking is that Iran is a neighbor of Iraq and, consequently, it is unreasonable to expect Iraq to have the same relationship with Iran that we have. Geopolitically, the theory goes, they have to have a different modus vivendi.
Maybe so. But if Iran is still part of the "axis of evil" — and, let's face it, the mullahs and Ahmadinejad have gotten only more provocative since the president famously used that phrase in January 2002 — it is difficult to understand what accommodations we foresee. In the raging sectarian warfare, Iran promotes jihadists of both Sunni and Shiite stripe. Plainly, it sees its interest in a destabilized Iraq. For our part, we've shrunk from making regime change in Iran official American policy. So just what kind of constructive role do we really think Tehran, as presently constituted, could ever play in Iraq?
In any event, most telling was one administration official's sense that our forces in Iraq had "sure sent a signal to the Iranians" by detaining the Iranian military officials who were captured in raids in mid-December. Yet, even as the president was preparing his new strategy, even as he was readying the words of warning he uttered so forcefully last night, those Iranians were released by the Maliki government and sent back to Iran after about a week in custody.
What signal can this have sent? This one: If you're an Iranian in Iraq helping to kill American troops, the comeuppance is that we'll hold you for a few days and then send you back home.
Actions, the old saw tells us, speak louder than words. Given our actions, and what they imply about our sentiments, it's going to take a lot more than last night's rhetoric to make an impression on Iran and Syria.
By Andrew C. McCarthy
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online