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MEI: We need a new “Big Stick” policy for Iran

President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”1 Roosevelt used the image of the big stick to popularize his philosophy, but he offered a subtler interpretation in other venues. It represented a quiet threat that would only rarely need to be used if accompanied by steady diplomacy. Threats of overwhelming force can shape adversary behavior, but only if those threats are credible. When diplomacy fails, and force is called for, action must be decisive.2

Roosevelt saw some success with this philosophy, but it has been, at best, unevenly applied over the more than 100 years since he left office. There is little to suggest it is being applied in the Middle East today. Without effective general deterrence and universal credibility of force, countries like Iran have taken advantage of the United States in ways that have directly undermined American regional and global interests and, in some cases, have injured and killed American citizens.

Many Americans know about the 2020 Iranian missile attack on U.S. forces at the al-Asad Airbase in Iraq that injured over 100 of our servicemembers. Fewer are aware of the more recent attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria using Iranian-made explosive drones and other weapons. These attacks, the latest of which took place this week, have become almost routine.

In Syria, hundreds of U.S. military personnel and contractors remain on the ground to help consolidate gains made in the campaign to defeat ISIS. Speaking before Congress in mid-March, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Erik Kurilla, said in Syria and Iraq ISIS “retains the ability to inspire, direct, organize, and lead attacks in the region and abroad.” The thousands of ISIS fighters held in detention facilities are a particular security concern, especially those in makeshift prisons in northeastern Syria. As Gen. Kurilla, who recently travelled to Syria, told Congress, “This population of detainees represents a looming threat to Syria, the region, and beyond.”

By contrast, Iran is in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. After Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad is arguably our generation’s most notorious war criminal. His regime is responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 Syrian civilians — over 87% of all civilians killed in the conflict — and Assad has used banned chemical weapons more than 300 times against civilian targets, including children.

Given our nation’s ongoing challenges with Russia and China, the United States would be wise to avoid a costly and distracting conflict with Iran. However, it is becoming clear that the current policy of “proportional response” to unprovoked and unwarranted Iranian-linked attacks on U.S. personnel is not working. During a Senate hearing on March 28, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin underscored that point by noting that the United States has responded only four times to 83 Iranian or Iranian proxy attacks since President Joe Biden took office. Based on those numbers, it might be more accurate to call our current policy “disproportionate response.”

Shifting to a policy that uses more “Big Stick” would at least keep the Iranians guessing. Not every rocket fired in the middle of the desert merits a lethal kinetic reaction. But suppose we are going to strike in response to more destructive or casualty-producing attacks. In that case, the U.S. military or intelligence services must strike ruthlessly and decisively to compel a change in behavior. After each strike, the administration must then abstain from public gloating.

Instead of issuing unnecessary statements about protecting our forces — the right of self-defense is inherent — let Iran and its proxies absorb the context and consequences to draw their own conclusions. If Iran or an Iran-directed militia attacks again, we should destroy higher-value targets to severely degrade their capability to operate in Syria. We should not allow them to sustain the capacity to strike again.

Options for a response could include direct overt attacks on Iranian and Iranian-backed facilities, supply lines, key leaders, or all of the above. They could also include direct covert action to do the same without acknowledging these actions, perhaps lowering the chances of retaliation or escalation. We should also include substantial cyber operations to degrade their ability to operate in Iraq and Syria, especially against the new technology they use to target our forces, such as their expanding drone program.

Restraint is admirable when it limits violence and the risk of escalation over time. Taking more decisive military action in response to Iranian attacks certainly carries some risk of escalation. But our current approach — inconsistent, indecisive, and ineffective military response coupled with broader inaction — perpetuates what has become a new baseline of illogical forbearance.

Restraint in and of itself is not a policy. Nor is it an effective regional strategy when it fails to limit violence and passively encourages escalating Iranian attacks that might terminate in the very war we seek to avoid. Using more of the “Big Stick” approach will not guarantee a change to the status quo with Iran, but it will help ensure that Iran stops wounding and killing American citizens and conducting its own escalatory attacks. Credible, consistent, and decisive action now may preclude the need for more costly violence later.

Sam Mundy is a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Marine Corps. He commanded Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and Marine Corps Forces Central Command, responsible for employing Marines assigned to the Middle East. He is the president of Once a Marine LLC and a distinguished senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Mick Mulroy is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer and U.S. Marine, an ABC News analyst, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.