The foreign policy establishment’s most foolish idea, of many, is the doctrine of proportionality. If an enemy kills 20 of our soldiers, we’ll kill 20 of theirs—or at least hold them hostage awhile. What is the point of being the world’s superpower if we can’t achieve our strategic goals with overwhelming force? Proportionality asks us to fight with one hand tied behind our back and the other cushioned by a giant boxing glove.
The great historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle created a fable to explain the cause of the War of Jenkins’ Ear. England didn’t really go to war with Spain in the mid-eighteenth century because a Spanish privateer had sliced off the ear of a British naval captain, who (mythically) laid it in evidence before Parliament. But the principle contained in the story is just: harm a hair on the head of a subject of the world’s superpower, and God help you.
The most luminous example of the opposite course is President Jimmy Carter’s pusillanimous behavior when Islamist “revolutionaries” overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 and took 52 American marines and embassy personnel hostage that November. The “student” hostage-takers were acting a piece of political theater, ready to release the Americans, until the much tougher-minded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power and saw that he had stymied the irresolute U.S. administration, unwilling to act. The “Great Satan,” America, “can’t do a thing,” he crowed.
The administration could do plenty but didn’t. What Carter should have done is publicly announce that the Iranians had 48 hours to return our citizens or we would bomb their so-called holy city of Qom until not one stone stood on another—after dropping leaflets warning the population to flee, of course. And that 48 hours after that, we would do the same thing to Tehran. In all likelihood, the outcome would have been a release of the hostages, with much theatrical muttering about how their capture was all the fault of hotheaded students, the young being what they are, and so on.
But supposing Khomeini had dug in his heels, and the other newly risen revolutionists had backed him up? Suppose we had leveled Qom. Suppose the Islamists had killed the hostages as a result.
Then we should have moved on to Tehran. I do not make light of the loss of lives that would have ensued, but we would in exchange have spared the world almost four decades of hostage-taking and plane hijackings and the attendant . . . well, terror. We would have crushed the world’s Number One state sponsor of terrorism before it even got a chance to establish itself as the Iranian state, now a whisker away from having an atomic bomb and the missiles to deliver it. And we would have made clear that you harm Americans at the peril of your lives and your nation’s.
But Carter caved; and if you wonder whether one man’s choice can change the course of history, here is yet one more case in point.
Now we live in an era of asymmetrical war, where Muslim extremists, radicalized on the Internet, can wreak carnage in Western capitals. China is inexorably stealing the South China Sea. North Korea is lobbing missiles off the coast of one of our staunch allies. Russia is ringing the U.S. mainland with nuclear-armed submarines.
President Trump has properly sent a destroyer to patrol Middle Eastern waters, and has tightened sanctions on Iran and North Korea. He is sending missiles to Eastern Europe and B-52 nuke-carrying bombers to South Korea. He has properly set in motion a strengthening of U.S. military might. If anyone understands the power of having the upper hand, it is he. And he should make clear that he won’t hesitate to use it.
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