Monday, June 24, 2019


When Iran shot down an American drone aircraft the question of how we should respond arose immediately. Iran, since the ayatollahs took over in 1979, has committed one attack after another against us, taking an enormous number of American lives.

President Trump has responded, first by ordering and then cancelling at the last minute a retaliatory strike on Iranian positions, and then by issuing strong economic sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Trump’s cancellation of a retaliatory air strike was the result of his decision that killing more than 100 Iranians was disproportionate to their destruction of a drone aircraft which is obviously correct. But the question of retaliation is posed as one of proportionality by those who deem any U.S. military action excessive especially in retaliation to an unprovoked attack by an aggressor.

Iran’s long trail of aggression against us is as old as the regime. From the 1979 terrorist seizure of U.S. diplomats as hostages to the drone shoot down we haven’t responded militarily except in the case of President Reagan’s strikes against Iranian oil facilities which resulted in a brief spate of attacks and counter attacks in which Iran came out the clear loser.

The result has not been a moderation of Iran’s actions — far less its intentions — but an escalation. Our inaction proved former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s axiom that weakness is provocative.

When Mr. Trump announced that he cancelled a response to the drone shoot down — planned against radar and missile sites — he did so because the military commanders told him that the strikes would kill about 150 Iranians.

The president said that we had been “cocked and loaded to retaliate” with strikes on three sites. He added, in a tweet, that “Iran can never have nuclear weapons, not against the USA and not against the world.”

The question of proportionality should not handcuff us into inaction. In most cases, however, proportionality should be a guideline for what we do.

On Sept. 12, 2001, I wrote on this page that because al Qaeda had committed an atrocity that took the lives of 3,000 Americans, our response should be severe and relentless, that it should be proportional to our might not the size of our enemy. But in the case of far lesser attacks, where no American lives are taken, the equation is very different.

Our response to the shooting down of a drone should not be the cumulative response to Iran’s 40 years of terrorist aggression. But we cannot — and Mr. Trump should not — let the Iranians take military action against us without a response that makes it clear to the ayatollahs that America will defend itself against any such violence.

The president has made a good start at a response. The sanctions against Mr. Khamenei and the reported cyber attacks on Iran’s missile systems stand out as proportionate actions with one significant caveat: If those sanctions and cyber attacks do not stop Iran’s aggression they are clearly inadequate.

Proportionality is a guideline, not a law of war. If the adversary continues his aggression without diminution, a greater — and more forceful — response is still “proportional.” A military strike, like the one Mr. Trump called off at the last moment, should be made.

Proportionality, in terms of military action, cannot be achieved with precision. The president needs to understand that and that it is unlikely that any target worth destroying in response to Iran’s actions can be accomplished without some Iranians being killed. There is never going to be a time when our Navy or Air Force can guarantee there will be no Iranian casualties. Nor should they be required to make such a guarantee.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of military actions we can take against Iran in which our military can attempt to minimize the casualties inflicted. We must know, for example, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats suspected in mining oil tankers are based. The thousand-pound warhead of a single Tomahawk cruise missile could destroy a bunch of them. We also must know where a variety of Iranian radar sites are located and when they are active. Any site that stops radiating signals for even an hour should be fair game.

The Pentagon war planners will have many more ideas. The Iranian’s promise to violate the limits on uranium enrichment supposedly imposed by former President Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with the ayatollahs raises another possibility. Remember “Stuxnet,” the computer worm that wrecked a substantial number of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges? It was reportedly a joint product of ours and the Israelis. It’s certainly time for “Stuxnet 2.0.”

Our behavior teaches Iran — and all our other enemies — lessons that can be beneficial or dangerous to us. For the 37 years since President Reagan’s response, the Iranians have been able to rely on us to not respond to their acts of terrorism and aggression. Since Mr. Trump cancelled the nuclear deal with Iran, they have only become more aggressive.

Credibility is an essential element of deterrence. Sometimes it has to be earned by military action. If Mr. Trump wants to deter Iranian action that could take American lives, he should not be handcuffed by proportionality and do nothing further in response to their continuing aggression.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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