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A Danger in Idle Threats

I’ve been on the road and so am late reacting to comments Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 22, but they are worth considering:

I think over the summer there was a significant spike into what the secretary said earlier with respect to Iran supporting two Shi’a extremist groups, AAH [Asaib Ahl al-Haq] and KH [Kata’ib Hezbollah]. And they have control of that — very clear. Because we went by several channels, but politically to Iraq; Iraq went to Iran, and it stopped. So it is — there’s no question that Iran can control this, and it’s a very dangerous potential. And they’re shipping EFPs [Explosively Formed Projectiles] and IRAMs [improvised rocket-assisted munitions] in particular, and the IRAMs are getting bigger and bigger… If they keep killing our troops, that will not be something we will just sit idly by and watch.

While I would normally applaud the notion the White House and Pentagon will not “sit idly by and watch” as adversaries murder Americans, there is a danger in idle threats. After all, during the tenures of both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, if not American policy, it was the American reality that the White House and Pentagon did “just sit idly by and watch” as the Iranian government kept killing our troops. Frankly, that was also the reality of the Clinton years as well given Iranian complicity in the Khobar Towers bombing.

The point of this is not simply to lament that recent administrations have been asleep at the switch when it comes to ensuring there is a cost to murdering Americans. Rather, the problem is from an Iranian perspective, American redlines are drawn with a feather in the sand. Overconfidence can lead to misjudgment and conflict. Unless we find a way to restore our credibility and convince adversaries the cost of killing Americans will be too high for them to bear, we’ll be doing our men and women in uniform and our own national security a severe disservice.