Once more, with feeling:
The New York Times writes: “A Congressional report warned that the United States risk(s) being drawn into Iran’s war. … A military response to the Iranian attack would represent a further expansion of the American role in the gulf ….” The president’s policies are described as vacillating, unfocussed, misguided, dangerous and above all, reactive. The Los Angeles Times sniffs: “Iran is in the driver’s seat in an absolute sense as the cycle of attack and retaliation continues.”And so on, ad nauseam.
But the year was 1987, not 2019, and the president was Ronald Reagan, not Donald Trump.
We all remember the story. It began in Lebanon, a most arcane, difficult, obscure and dangerous place in that most Byzantine part of the world. On April 18, 1983, the Beirut barracks — assigned to a contingent of Marines dispatched to Lebanon to help quell vicious fighting between confessional groups that threatened to again tear the country apart — was blown up. Even PBS agreed: Hezbollah operatives who carried out the attack were receiving financial and logistical support from Iran and Syria, both governed by their co-religionists and both virulently anti-Western and anti-American. Two years of hijackings, bombings, kidnappings and general mayhem followed. And that wasn’t all.
In early 1986, the Persian Gulf Tanker War, part of the conflict between Iran and Iraq, warmed up. As explained in the “proceedings” of the US Naval Institute, since 1984 Iraq had attacked Iranian oil export facilities and oil transports, often using missiles. Iran countered slowly, but by 1986 was employing a broad range of assets including mines, anti-ship missiles and occasionally its naval assets, to cripple the export of Iraqi crude oil. Iran indiscriminately attacked neutral vessels, hoping to internationalize the conflict by drawing in neutral countriesand crippling the World oil market. Remember, back then most of the industrialized world ran on Middle Eastern oil.
Counter-strategies were evolved by shippers, including night travel, shadowing friendly warships, false naming and manifesting and more. None were really successful. Finally, the U.S. Navy and some allied ships took to tacitly convoying oil tankers, which reduced, but did not eliminate, the risk. Finally, as Iranian actions rose to unacceptable levels, Reagan ordered the navy to commence convoy operations and to suppress attacks on tankers.
There were problems: U.S. law forbade the use of U.S. naval forces to escort non-U.S.-flagged vessels. Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates immediately agreed to reflag but Congress vehemently opposed the action.Reagan ignored the objections, and operation Earnest Will was born — the largest naval convoy operation since World War II.
Iranian harassment continued, mostly by small, fast boats and anti-ship missiles fired from oil platforms and the al-Faw peninsula at the mouth of the Gulf. Finally, three combined operations — Prime Chance, Nimble Archer and Praying Mantis — put an end to the nonsense.Through the use of aircraft, ships and special forces, Iranian capacity to attack ships was reduced to zero; the Gulf became a quiet neighborhood and remained so until relatively recently.
Now it seems Iranian leadership has been spurred to recklessness by renewed sanctions. As Reuters notes, what we are seeing is a desperate regime, being squeezed and reminding its neighbors it can still do them damage. But as analyst Ali Alfoneh of the Arab Gulf States Institute points out, this is terribly risky.
One reason is that Trump seems more like Reagan here than Barack Obama. His response — the buildup of forces, the “You’ll see” answer to the question “What will you do?” — and his discussions with allies in the region and in Europe all seem designed to build tension. But his remark Thursday that the Iranian downing of a U.S. drone in international airspace — an act of war by definition — might just have been a mistake by a trigger-happy nitwit seemed to offer a way out, should the mullahs wish it. Not the action or words of someone spoiling for a war, nor a subtlety his enemies will recognize, but there it is.
And in that, too, not much has changed. As the Washington Post admitted in October of 1986, “Much of the press, too, views foreign policy not as a matter to be approached with a shared concept of national interest but rather as an opportunity to embarrass the administration in office, to leak its secrets, and even to expose its truly sensitive plans or activities.”
Plus ça change … alas.