Editor's Note: Eliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, from which this piece is reprinted. You can read Abrams' blog Pressure Points here.
By Elliot Abrams
There must be very few times in American history when a foreign government is accused of killing American troops, and absolutely nothing is done about it.
Every school kid used to learn lines like “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead,” or “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” The War of 1812 was fought in large part due to the “impressment” of American sailors by the British, a similar example of denial of freedom that fell far short of actually killing American sailors.
So what are we to make of the following statements by America’s senior military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen? Reuters reports that at a luncheon with journalists, Mullen said this:
“Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups which are killing our troops. And there’s no reason … for me to believe that they’re going to stop that as our numbers come down….There’s no question they want to influence, and particularly in the south,” Mullen said. “They are shipping high-tech weapons in there … which are killing our people and … the forensics prove that.”
Mullen made these comments in the context of discussing the American troop presence in Iraq, and went on to say that any agreement to keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year “has to be done in conjunction with control of Iran in that regard.” So Iran’s killing of American troops is a problem because it complicates leaving some forces in Iraq?
What is one to make of it when our senior commander does not seem outraged by this Iranian conduct and does not demand that we put a stop to it? Our forces are not killing Iranians, but Iran has been killing Americans–in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also through involvement in terrorist attacks such as the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996–for decades, and it has paid no price. This is the probable explanation why continuing American promises, or threats if you like, that “it is unacceptable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons” don’t appear to rattle Tehran. What credibility can we possibly have when they know we know that Iran has been killing American soldiers year after year without any significant American response.
It isn’t just Iran, either: the Assad regime in Syria became the transit point for every jihadi wanting to travel to Iraq to kill Americans (and large numbers of Iraqis). From all around the globe they came–Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, you name it–to Damascus International Airport, thence to be shepherded into Iraq with the full cooperation and coordination of the Government of Syria. The American military response: none. This was especially galling, for whatever dangers may have existed in threatening Iran and then having to carry through on those threats if Iran did not cease acting to kill American soldiers, they were absent in the case of a weak country like Syria. A few object lessons would have persuaded the Assad regime to desist from its actions.
Soon we will have a new Secretary of Defense and a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and one can only hope that we will also have a new policy: that neither Iran nor any other government can kill Americans with impunity. The least we owe servicemen and women who risk their lives for our country is the certainty that when we know a foreign government is trying to kill them, we will act to stop it. If we adopted such a policy, we would never again have to hear a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs reveal such a set of facts and suggest as an American response……well, nothing.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elliot Abrams. For more, visit his blog Pressure Points.