America was born in the shadow of shadow wars. In Conquered into Liberty, Eliot Cohen recalls the "Great Warpath" -- the corridor from Montreal to Albany where armies battled over the course of centuries.
Even then, warfare included what we call today "black operations." But, as Cohen notes, these missions, "particularly those that are the stuff of legend, rarely actually accomplish all that their publicists (including themselves) promise."
In part, he concludes, the conflict on the Great Warpath spanned generations because black ops tactics can't, by themselves, achieve a decisive conclusion.
Irregular warfare certainly should not be seen as some kind of easy button for national security. Yet from Yemen to Uganda to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration has increasingly opted to rely on a "small footprint" strategy--one in which drone strikes, covert raids and secret agents substitute for a more full-throated strategy.
Thus, it is no surprise that the Obama administration appears to be counting heavily on covert operations in its quixotic quest to deal with Tehran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Certainly black ops are underway--though the country, or countries, behind them remain, as yet, unknown.
Car bomb attacks killed two of Iran's leading nuclear physicists (and wounded the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization) in 2010. Later that year, the Stuxnet cyber-attack on the Bushehr nuclear plant dramatically slowed Iranian progress on nuclear fuel enrichment.
More recently comes news of explosions at Iranian facilities related to both nuclear and missile production. Last month, explosions at a Revolutionary Guards base outside Tehran claimed the life of Major General Hassan Moghaddam, the "architect" of Iran's missile program.
Whether or not all these developments result from deliberate plots, it's certainly been bad news for the nuclear-mad mullahs. But these speed bumps alone are not going to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
There is little chance of quashing Iran's program with a few "black operations." The Iranians have dispersed their programs and facilities. They are too smart to put all their eggs in one basket. They have added redundancies.
The Iranians also have friends in all the wrong places. The North Koreans and the Iranians have shared technical know-how, materials and technology on both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
At the same time, the Russians and Chinese have Tehran's back; they are slow-rolling international efforts to isolate the regime.
Meanwhile, the White House has been perpetually ineffectual. Obama wasted years trying to engage Iran. Rather than risk alienating Ahmadinejad, he turned his back on the Green Revolution when election protests broke out in 2009.
He canned a missile defense system in Europe that would have been in place by 2013 and served as a strong deterrent against an Iranian threat. Instead, he opted for a "phased and adaptive" initiative, which, according to the administration's own best estimates, won't be available to intercept a long-range ballistic missile until after the Iranians have acquired that capability.
Obama's ambivalence not only failed to placate Iran, it emboldened the regime. The storming of the British embassy simply reaffirms Tehran's abject indifference to international opinion.
The mullahs direct threat of retaliation to NATO ally Turkey (for Ankara's condemnation of Iran's client state, Syria) reiterates their hostility to any opposition, foreign or domestic.
The situation in Iran could not be more dire. And shadow war alone doesn't have a shadow of a chance to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons. To keep the mullahs from getting The Button, the United States will need to bring the full weight of its foreign policy and military might to bear.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.