Iran’s proxies are running roughshod over America’s allies and interests in the Middle East. Hezbollah is dictating the terms of Lebanese politics and preparing for war with Israel. In Yemen, Houthis indiscriminately launch missiles into Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, in areas of Iraq that Iranian-backed militias have liberated from the Islamic State, hundreds of men and boys have disappeared; scores of others have been executed.
But it’s not just Iran that gives proxy war a bad name. In the Cold War, both the United States and Soviet Union employed proxies, often to ill effect. And in the post-9/11 era, proxies continue to play a critical role in how the United States, Russia and Iran seek to realize national-security objectives while trying to limit costs. But dependence on proxies comes with its own risks and moral hazards. Though Dwight Eisenhower once called proxy war “the cheapest insurance you can find,” the last seven decades of American foreign policy reveal otherwise.