After exchanging fire with the U.S. four years ago, Iran continued to pursue its long-term trifecta of strategic objectives: preserving the theocratic regime in Tehran, destroying Israel, and ejecting the U.S. from the Middle East. The mullahs’ actions, however, were muted and hidden behind proxies, from the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hamas in Gaza and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria. The Iranians remembered the result of a straightforward confrontation with the U.S.
Regrettably, the U.S. hasn’t remembered this lesson and the importance of matching demonstrable will with our capabilities. Even before Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, Iranian forces were launching missile and drone strikes on our bases across the region, acting through proxies that gave them a measure of deniability. Our response has consistently been tentative, overly signaled and unfocused.
Iranian leaders work with Lenin’s dictum that “you probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.” Tehran and its proxies are pressing their attacks because they haven’t confronted steel. The ability to stop such probing generally depends on a swift and violent counterattack. Delaying and equivocating usually means the response needed to re-establish deterrence has to be much larger than it would have been if it had been applied in a timely manner. As a military officer, I have observed such hesitancy and lack of strategic clarity across several presidential administrations. In 2019, an early and sharp response to Iranian provocation might have ended the escalatory spiral well before the U.S. had to strike Soleimani and accept the possibility of theater war.
There is another issue at stake. If avoiding escalation is the highest U.S. priority, then it is only logical to withdraw our forces from the region. That would ensure attacks on our bases don’t continue but ultimately endanger the future of the Mideast. Language that describes avoiding escalation as our highest priority is, therefore, inaccurate and dangerous. It sends an unhelpful signal to our adversaries as well as our friends and allies.
A case in point is Houthi activity in and around the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. In the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy of the U.S. we emphasize the importance of free passage through such global choke points. Protecting this principle, and our strategic priority, is more important than avoiding escalation. Taking strong action against the Houthis isn’t likely to lead to theaterwide escalation. Iran is waging a hidden-hand war from Yemen because it is cheap and because there are few consequences for Tehran. A forceful response against the Houthis, designed to make them feel the pain of continuing their irresponsible behavior, wouldn’t ineluctably lead to a large-scale Iranian response. Pursuing this approach is especially consequential: The Chinese are watching to see how we respond to a threat involving a narrow strait.
Unfortunately, it is the U.S. that is being deterred, not Iran and its proxies. To reset deterrence, we must apply violence that Tehran understands. Paradoxically, if done earlier, this violence could have been of a far smaller and more measured scale. Indecision has placed us in this position. There is a way forward but it requires the U.S. to set aside the fear of escalation and act according to the priorities of our strategic documents and concepts. Iranians understand steel. They also understand mush. It is time to choose.
Gen. McKenzie, a retired U.S. Marine general, served as commander of U.S. Central Command, 2019-22. He is executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida and author of “The Melting Point: High Command and War in the 21st Century,” forthcoming in June.