Go with the tough guy

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to Opinion and an unpaid foreign policy advisor to the McCain campaign.

Some conservatives are having conniptions over the rise of John McCain as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Personally, I am less interested in what Rush Limbaugh, Tom DeLay or Ann Coulter think than I am in the views of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad and Kim Jong Il.

This trio -- dare we dub them the new “axis of evil”? -- has been challenging American interests with growing impudence. Kim’s North Korea has developed nuclear weapons in violation of international sanctions and has so far failed to abide by the terms of a deal that would dismantle this program.

With the support of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad has been laying the groundwork for the development of Iranian nuclear weapons and supporting Shiite and Sunni extremists who are killing American soldiers in Iraq. The Revolutionary Guard Corps, to which he has close links, has become increasingly assertive in challenging the British and American navies in the international waters of the Persian Gulf.


Syria’s Assad is widely suspected of being behind the continuing assassinations of Lebanese leaders who oppose Syrian dominance in that nation, of supporting Hamas and Hezbollah and of looking the other way as Al Qaeda suicide bombers infiltrate Iraq.

There is some evidence that both Iranian and Syrian activity in Iraq may be down slightly in recent months. But it is far from clear whether this is because of any change of heart on the part of Tehran and Damascus. More likely, it is simply the product of more effective American and Iraqi counterinsurgency efforts.

While visiting Iraq recently, I was told by U.S. military sources that an estimated 50 to 80 foreign jihadists a month are still infiltrating Iraq from Syria. They have simply changed their route from Anbar province, which has turned decisively against Al Qaeda, to further north in Salahaddin and Nineveh provinces. Moreover, Syria has become the headquarters of a new Iraqi Baathist party that is working with Al Qaeda to facilitate and finance attacks in Iraq. There is even evidence to indicate that Abu Ayyub Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, is hiding in Syria. For its part, Iran continues to train and support the Shiite “Special Groups” that are among the most vicious sectarian terrorists in the entire country, and to smuggle dangerous munitions for use against coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both Iran and Syria are perfectly aware that the United States knows what they’re up to. Administration officials, from the president on down, have warned them numerous times that their actions are unacceptable and must be stopped. Yet their subversion continues.

Clearly, these rogue regimes do not fear the consequences of waging a proxy war on America and our allies. They think they can get away with killing and maiming American soldiers -- and so far they have been right.

President Bush has not done enough to back up his threats against Iran and Syria, beyond pushing for economic sanctions of limited value at a time when oil is hitting $100 a barrel. The president has refused to authorize even limited special operations strikes on jihadist networks inside Syria or Iran.


This is part of a larger trend of Bush combining strong words with weak actions. The president talks of promoting democracy and supporting dissidents, but when he visited Egypt last month, he failed to publicly chide his host, Hosni Mubarak, for jailing the chief liberal opposition leader. This disconnect has done serious damage to American standing and credibility.

It is hard to see how Bush could reverse this decline in America’s “fear factor” during the remaining year of his presidency. That will be the job of the next president. And who would be the most up to the task?

To answer that question, ask yourself which presidential candidate an Ahmadinejad, Assad or Kim would fear the most. I submit it is not Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Mike Huckabee. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the leading candidate to scare the snot out of our enemies is a certain former aviator who has been noted for his pugnacity and his unwavering support of the American war effort in Iraq. Ironically, John McCain’s bellicose aura could allow us to achieve more of our objectives peacefully because other countries would be more afraid to mess with him than with most other potential occupants of the Oval Office -- or the current one.