For those of you of a certain age, you may remember the refrain from that Crosby Stills and Nash song: “we have all been here before.” We have indeed. But not in the quasi-mystical sense the boys of rock & roll meant it. Rather, the Middle East seems to draw the U.S. regularly into massive military interventions which end badly for us and for the countries which are our victims.
The latest example of this is the mounting crisis in the Persian Gulf. Though Beltway neocon think tankers and right-wing media like the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg conveniently ignore the context of the confrontation and call for military action against Iran, we must remember there is a reason for the recent sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Donald Trump campaigned for president against Pres. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. By extension, he was expressing profound disdain for Iran itself. When he came into office he torpedoed the deal to the applause of his GOP Congressional supporters. Instead, he not only renewed the failed sanctions regime implemented by presidents going back two decades, he essentially placed an international embargo on Iran. He squeezed that nation out of the oil markets, cut off foreign trade, and designated Iran’s most important military force a terrorist organization.
We have to remember our Newtonian physics here: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When America puts the screws to Iran, it isn’t about to either capitulate or wait for the other shoe to drop. Like any self-respecting sovereign nation, they are going to defend their own interests, and do so aggressively.
No one knows how those six tankers were attacked. Iran claims it was a false flag attack. The Trump administration points the finger at Iran. Most sober analysts like Eoin Higgins in the NY Times, say it’s far to early to determine with any certainty what happened and who was behind the attacks.
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment: even if Iran was responsible for the damage to these vessels, it would be engaging in an act of self-preservation under the onslaught of an international siege. Iran’s response to such hostility has historical precedent.
When Egypt’s Gamal Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran in 1967, Israel treated it as a causus belli, and within days it launched a pre-emptive attack which started the Six Day War. During the American Civil War, the South suffered from a suffocating Northern naval blockade which cut off its ability to trade with foreign states, import food for civilians and arms from foreign powers. The Confederacy responded with a failed attempt to break the siege through a series of naval battles. Nations can be expected to react strongly when their enemies tighten a noose around their necks. Iran is no different.
All this seems to have escaped the neocon pundit class and right-wing media, which are bellowing for war. Bloomberg published an editorial suggesting the far-fetched notion that the EU should join the U.S. is confronting Iran. The WSJ regales us with blood and guts op-eds from anti-Iran think tankers, Ray Tayekh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, telling us that Iran is a pushover, and let’s get on with it already. Finally, Sen. Tom Cotton called for a “retaliatory military strike” on the Iranians.
Secretary of State Pompeo makes a point of telling the world media that a military option is on the table. While the president himself says the attacks on the tankers were “minor.” He added in a Time Magazine interview that he would not go to war over damaged tankers. It seems like no one’s home when it comes to the Trump administration. We’re about to go to war until we’re not.
This should be a time when we step back from the brink and examine our priorities, rather than rushing unto the breach. We should ponder a few historical episodes in which America’s leaders provoked wars which led to decades of subsequent suffering and the loss of tens of thousands of American soldiers’ lives (not to mention millions of lives of those who were our victims).
In 1967, secret U.S. attacks on North Vietnamese positions led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which an American naval destroyer claimed it had been attacked by enemy patrol boats. On the strength of these reports, which turned out to be false, Lyndon Johnson commenced the massive military build-up which led to six more years of military stalemate and 50,000 American dead (along with over a million Vietnamese).
In 2003, Dick Cheney and George Bush falsely led the world to believe that Saddam Hussein had WMD with which he could destroy his enemies and the Middle East. We invaded Iraq to overthrow him, when hardly any of the claims we made to justify our invasion bore any truth. The result? Two decades of unrest, massive corruption, sectarian violence, and dysfunction in Iraq, and thousands more American dead.
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This seems especially true of Republicans over the past two decades.
As for what we can look forward to in the unstable Persian Gulf region in the coming months. It’s worth returning to 1987-88, when Iran and Iraq were fighting a savage war that claimed millions of lives. Then, the U.S. was allied with Saddam against the Iranians. Both sides targeted shipping, specifically the oil tankers plying the Gulf. It was a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval forces which led to an American destroyer shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner with the loss of 200 lives. Later, the U.S. put Kuwaiti vessels under U.S. flag and our navy escorted them through the contested waters.
It may come to this again. However, in order to mount such an operation we would need many more ships and naval personnel to escort the ships of not just Kuwait, as we did in 1988, but of all the nations shipping oil around the world from ports in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State. It would be precisely the sort of foreign entanglement for which candidate Trump expressed disdain. Would he have the stomach for this? Possibly, if his good friend, Mohammed bin Salman pressured him to do so.