Imagine if news emerged that for more than a year, Iran had been capturing and releasing American saboteurs who had been killing Iranians in territory in which they had a legal right to be. What would be the outcry in all the capitals of Europe? Greater than it would be today, after the Washington Post reported that US troops are now authorized to use lethal force against Iranian agents operating in Iran, after applying a policy of "catch and release" program for a year against Iranian agents sent to kill Americans; a policy it followed because it wanted to send a conciliatory signal to Iran.
For more than a year, U.S. forces in Iraq have secretly detained dozens of suspected Iranian agents, holding them for three to four days at a time. The "catch and release" policy was designed to avoid escalating tensions with Iran and yet intimidate its emissaries. U.S. forces collected DNA samples from some of the Iranians without their knowledge, subjected others to retina scans, and fingerprinted and photographed all of them before letting them go. ...
But, for three years, the Iranians have operated an embedding program there, offering operational training, intelligence and weaponry to several Shiite militias connected to the Iraqi government, to the insurgency and to the violence against Sunni factions. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the CIA, told the Senate recently that the amount of Iranian-supplied materiel used against U.S. troops in Iraq "has been quite striking." ...
Those who continue to believe that "engaging" Iran is the road to bringing stability to Iraq should note that if the WaPo's article is accurate, the US was in fact sending a continuous invitation to talk to the Mullahs by pointedly refusing to escalate the confrontation. An invitation which not only went unheeded but produced the contrary result. Instead of impressing the Mullahs with American moral superiority and seriousness; instead of convincing them that the "adults were back in charge" it encouraged even more aggression. "There were no costs for the Iranians," said one senior administration official. "They are hurting our mission in Iraq, and we were bending over backwards not to fight back." This may not impress the advocates of engagement, who may calculate that the US was not bending backward far enough. A little more "flexibility", a few more "confidence building" measures and there would be light at the end of the tunnel. And now, horrors! the incompetent administration is now thinking about "widening the war" (shades of Cambodia) by shooting back. Well, sort of shooting back.
The White House has authorized a widening of what is known inside the intelligence community as the "Blue Game Matrix" -- a list of approved operations that can be carried out against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. And U.S. officials are preparing international sanctions against Tehran for holding several dozen al-Qaeda fighters who fled across the Afghan border in late 2001. They plan more aggressive moves to disrupt Tehran's funding of the radical Palestinian group Hamas and to undermine Iranian interests among Shiites in western Afghanistan.
In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush administration officials have been urging top military commanders to exercise the authority.
Already, steps are in train to control the response, to ensure that Iranians remain aware of America's pacific intentions. Otherwise they might get the idea that the US might respond tit for tat. "The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war." To prevent that the administration is going to gradually escalate its response. As President Bush put it, "they can't bomb an outhouse without my permission". Oops. That was Lyndon Johnson. Or was it Condoleeza Rice? Those who insisted on comparing Iraq to Vietnam can now call these measured responses "Rolling Thunder", for old time's sake.
Senior administration officials said the policy is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders. But if Iran responds with escalation, it has the means to put U.S. citizens and national interests at greater risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. ...
In meetings with Bush's other senior advisers, officials said, Rice insisted that the defense secretary appoint a senior official to personally oversee the program to prevent it from expanding into a full-scale conflict. Rice got the oversight guarantees she sought ... Officials said U.S. and British special forces in Iraq, which will work together in some operations, are developing the program's rules of engagement to define the exact circumstances for using force.
But in war timing is nearly everything. The difference between a brilliant attack and fiasco might be a few hours and here the counterstroke has been delayed for a year. The real danger to this tentative aggressiveness is that may be too little -- and too late. Just as the Sunni insurgency may have been fueled by the decision to abort the First Battle of Fallujah, Iranian aggression has been allowed to grow to the point where meeting it now risks a serious confrontation. As in the case of a man who has let a scratch become a gangrenous infection, the choices are now between bad and worse. But because the Mullahs have been allowed to run rampant for so long the force required to halt them will be high. An administration which spent its political capital mollifying its critics may now find it has none left to stop the nation's enemies. The patient may refuse the amputation as unnecessary, even as he refused the antibioltics as unnecessary earlier. The sands run out both comically and tragically.
If this cautionary tale is about anything, it should be about the dangers of showing weakness in the face of the enemy. What "catch and release" has been to Iran and the insurgents is exactly what "cut and run" will be to civilization's terrorist enemies. Not a path to peace but a route to catastrophe. The realization will come, but it will come too late.