Within two weeks, four choppers go down in Iraq. Shot down. By ene mies who previously couldn't hit the Goodyear Blimp.
Attack helicopters and transport birds, military and contractor aircraft went down. Crews KIA (in one case, executed). Did the bad guys just get lucky?
No. They have new weapons. And new training. And a new strategy.
First, the strategy: In Iraq, helicopters serve as our taxis, moving personnel quickly and - until now - safely above the carnage on the ground. Attack helicopters provide quick-response fire support to the grunts, giving us a huge advantage.
Limit our freedom to fly, and you not only reduce the ability of Apache gun-ships to kill our enemies and save friendly lives, you force us onto the roads. And the roads are where bombs and ambushes can further restrict our movement.
The insurgent/terrorist/militia strategy is to lock us down, to slow our responses - ultimately, to paralyze us. Our enemies not only seek to level the playing field, but to tilt it against us, practically and psychologically.
Good strategy. Can they make it work?
Not without help. Those birds appear to have been knocked down by a combination of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and gunfire. Gunfire's always been a threat, but aircraft are surprisingly tough to hit unless you know what you're doing. Man-pack SAMs require some basic training, but find their targets much more reliably.
Unless these shoot-downs were a weird blip, foreign powers are involved, providing the missiles and training - probably outside of Iraq. Our intel services either already know who's lurking behind our enemies' new capabilities or will confirm it soon enough.
And who might those third parties be?
Iran? You bet. Even though those claiming responsibility for the shoot-downs register as Sunni Arabs, the Iranians are perfectly willing to aid their long-term enemies to defeat us in the short term, calculating that they can deal with the Sunnis later.
If we have proof that Iran is supplying the missiles, there's no substitute for sending Tehran an exploding Valentine. But the targets chosen should be training centers near the Iraqi border or facilities otherwise associated with Tehran's subversion efforts: Make it hurt, but spare Iran's regular military and infrastructure - for now.
Why? Because we need to continue to make every reasonable effort to show the people of Iran that we don't regard them as our enemies, only the regime that they themselves despise. Hit the guilty, not their victims.
The same goes for Syria, the next thug in the lineup. If proof emerges of its involvement, the Damascus regime needs a dose of therapeutic punishment. And no, get-their-attention airstrikes won't "lead the Syrians and Iranians to back our enemies." They already do. They've been at it since 2003.
So much for the simple stuff.
Iran and Syria may supply surface-to-air missiles to our enemies, but they don't build them. They buy them. From Russia, above all. Oh, SAMs and other hi-tech weapons are on sale from France to China. But source No. 1 for rogue regimes is Vladimir Putin's personal empire.
For all of the Bush administration's unpardonable errors in Iraq, the blame on this particular count goes back to "Gutless Bill" Clinton. I was there, working Russian issues as the old USSR dissolved and the newly independent-for-an-instant states emerged.
Russia needed tough love. The Clinton administration volunteered unconditional love. Later on, with the worst damage already done, President Bush "looked into" Putin's soul. Optical illusions aside, there wasn't a soul to see.
Now Moscow sells nuclear technology to Iran and blocks our efforts to support freedom and protect human rights at the United Nations - all while using its oil and gas as weapons to bully struggling democracies. Putin's security-state kills journalists at home, assassinates critics abroad and puts businessmen in jail for suggesting that all may not be perfect in the realm of the grim new czar.
Oh, and Moscow's rooting for every enemy likely to embarrass the United States - partly from frustrated ambition, partly from resentment over the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and our Cold War triumph and partly from sheer, blockheaded, Russians-can't-help-themselves stupidity.
And the Russians sell arms to anybody.
Iraq isn't just about Iraqis. They're in it, we're in it - and the Iranians, Syrians and Russians are in it. Saudis, Turks and a virtual United Nations of terrorists are players, too.
What can we do? Come down hard - finally - on our enemies in Iraq. That's Gen. Dave Petraeus' job, and he's fixing to do it (if Congress doesn't stab him in the back).
And Iran and Syria need to be punished. That means military action from the air. And no, it won't lead to an Iranian invasion force landing at the Hamptons. Resolute force is the most-underestimated tool in our geopolitical arsenal.
As for Russia, we simply need to return to sensible policies. That means no more pretending that Moscow's an ally. Employ a carrot-and-stick policy, cooperating when Russia behaves, refusing cooperation when it doesn't. We've got to stop acting like prostitutes who pay abusive clients.
The saddest part of this mess is that our leaders made so much of it themselves. From Bush I through Clinton (I?) to Bush II, our leaders succumbed to the advice of foolish, arrogant men who rejected reality in favor of ideological fantasies, left and right. Our entire political class failed.
Back in Iraq, we'll change out tactics to frustrate our enemies and keep our 'cop- ters flying. And our enemies will change their tactics again. It's the endless back-and-forth of war.
But the foes of freedom beyond Iraq's borders raised the stakes significantly by providing deadly new weapons and training to the insurgents and terrorists. They're confident that they hold the winning cards. It's time we taught them how to play for keeps.
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