Something remarkable has happened, even by the Middle East's usual standards. For the first time in history, states in the region are conducting a systematic covert war against the United States. The question is what can America do about it? Not much.
The war is being conducted in Iraq, mainly by Iran but also by Syria.
In both cases, evidence indicates:
--Groups are being encouraged to attack and kill Americans in Iraq.
--Recruitment of terrorists is being freely allowed, as is their training, financing, arming, and transport to the Iraqi border where they are permitted to cross over to wage war on the United States.
In Iran, that country's own citizens are being used in a war against the United States in order to destabilize and try to take over Iraq. To some extent, Tehran exercises influence over the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, who has repeatedly set off fighting with the coalition forces. While the exact extent of Iranian involvement can be debated, the fact that it exists on a large scale is clear.
Let there be no mistake, this is a major development and sets a dangerous precedent for the future. While there have been many reports about Syrian and Iranian involvement in the Iraq fighting, virtually no one has noted the implications. If Damascus and Tehran can get away with waging a direct war against America--not just a sporadic sponsorship of isolated terrorist attacks as has happened in the past--how much credibility and deterrence will the United States have against radical regimes? Moreover, this is taking place at a time when U.S. power and regional presence is at a peak.
Would there be violence in Iraq without this subversive intervention? Certainly, But it would be at a much lower level, meaning fewer American soldiers and civilians would be dying in Iraq, there would be more domestic support for continuing the commitment there, and the new Iraqi government would have a much better chance of reestablishing stability.
There are a variety of other charges that can be brought against the two radical regimes. Syria is suspected of hiding high-ranking Saddamist officials and weapons of mass destruction material. Iran had suspicious ties with Osama bin Ladin's al-Qaeda after it was driven out of Afghanistan. At a minimum, it gave safe passage to anti-American terrorists and probably is allowing them to operate from its soil. In addition, Iran is busily developing nuclear weapons and will soon have them, as well as the missiles to deliver them to distant targets.
Why, then, can the United States do so little about the problem?
First, the United States is overextended in Iraq, spending vast amounts of money and using pretty much all the available military forces.
Second, support for the presence in Iraq is already falling rapidly and there would be no domestic backing or international support for engaging in a wider war.
Third, after having been so criticized for going into Iraq in the first place, the administration would not have much credibility in charging that Iran and Syria are engaged in aggressive activities.
Finally, both Syria and Iran would be tougher adversaries than Iraq, resulting in horrendous, bloody, inconclusive, and endless wars if the United States decided to fight them.
The U.S. Congress has recently passed a law to penalize Syria for its behavior and there have long been sanctions against Iran. The former, however, are fairly meaningless while the latter have inflicted costs on Tehran but nowhere near enough to make it change policy. In both cases, too, Europe is ready, even eager, to violate the U.S. sanctions and tighten relations with these terrorist-sponsoring states.
Given U.S. inability to do much about the problem, even President George W. Bush--who coined the phrase "axis of evil" and calls for subverting dictators by supporting democracy--has been careful not to play up the issue. Imagine if it had been revealed five or ten years ago that Iran was urging, ordering, organizing, and paying hundreds or even thousands of people to kill Americans on a daily basis. Now this situation is being taken for granted.
If this situation can be ignored, it is unlikely that the United States, whoever is elected president in November, would take strong and direct action if Iran announced that it possessed nuclear weapons. These are uncomfortable realities and they must be faced. No matter what anyone argues, this passivity is not going to change. Having gone into Iraq and found that step so controversial and relatively unsuccessful, the United States is not going to undertake other offensive actions, whether or not they seem justifiable to some observers.
Arguably, what is happening in this respect is undoing any gain in the "fear factor" brought about by the U.S. overthrow of Saddam. Those who argue that, in the words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini two decades ago, the United States cannot do a "damn thing" are having that feeling reinforced today.
The Iraq war's outcome has undermined the credibility of U.S. power no matter how long American forces remain in Iraq. Indeed, one could argue that the longer an American presence remains in Iraq the worse the problem will become.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and co-author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography and Hating America: A History (Oxford University Press, August 2004). Read more about the book on its website: .