Op-Eds by Jim

At Least the Navy Knows What It’s Doing in the Gulf

April 20, 1988
by James Webb, The Washington Post

The recent exchange of hostilities in the Persian Gulf reminds us of three recurring truisms that have yet to be resolved in American security policy. The first is that we proceed from crisis to crisis without clearly stated national goals, reacting to, rather than controlling, the diplomatic environment in which we work. The second is that our national political leaders have yet to comprehend the proper way to use force, and by seeking to minimize the risk of casualties in the short term, vastly increase those risks over the long term. And the third is that the military commanders and troops in the field continue to serve their national leaders far better than their national leaders serve them.

The American Navy has operated with exceptional skill in the Persian Gulf, despite the administration’s introduction of an unwieldy and in some cases inappropriate force structure, and despite its hesitance to use its forces as other than diplomatic symbols, floating targets that are invitations to an international incident. Last week the Iranians took the administration up on that invitation, again sowing a mine field in international waters-an act of war-and scoring a hit on an American warship. The superb skill of the crew saved the ship. Retaliatory acts occurred this week, and in the end the Iranian navy was dealt a serious setback. The numbers are still coming in, but it appears that two frigates are destroyed, a guided missile PT boat is sunk and a number of “boghammar” gunboats are done away with.

Oh, yes. And we also shot the hell out of two oil platforms. It is important to remember the oil platforms, because they were the only intended targets of an administration that is now basking in the glory of a military success that it did not direct.

As we examine the superb performance of the Navy this week, it should be remembered that the administration again chose a minimal course of retaliation against Iran, one that in itself would neither have deterred the Iranians nor insulated our sailors from further actions by Iran. Conducting target practice on a couple of oil platforms was hardly designed to send chills up the spine of the average Iranian sailor, particularly those who make a living laying mines. Nor would it have affected the ability of the Iranian military to again perform an aggressive mission at the time and place of its choosing, using American warships and sailors to communicate its foreign policy to the world, and just possibly-as in Beirut-to win the tragedy sweepstakes and put America on its ear.

As it was, a few foolhardy Iranians got in the way of the work on the oil platforms, a few others attacked a U.S.-owned tugboat and a Panamanian barge with U.S. citizens aboard, and then two frigates attempted to pull out of port at Bandar Abbas, firing a stray round or two at some American aircraft. Local commanders determined that “hostile intent” existed in each case, and the Iranian naval assets were all quickly destroyed.

In other words, military commanders on the scene took the type of action that the administration has been too fearful to direct itself, the type of action that should have been taken five months ago and the only type of action that can ensure the operational security of our forces in the Gulf.

The administration has carefully nurtured the notion of “proportional response” with respect to our Persian Gulf activities. One would imagine that 25 years of failure would be enough for any concept. Proportional response doomed us in Vietnam, enabling the enemy to adjust continually, and even to control the tempo of the war. Those in the military who watched Vietnamese railroad tracks and bridges destroyed (and then quickly replaced) in exchange for attacks on people know full well that the destruction of Iranian oil platforms in exchange for attacks on people will not work. The way to eliminate mine-laying is not to blow up oil platforms, or even to continually sweep mines. It is to eliminate the mine-layers. If we are not prepared to do so, we have no moral right to expose dozens of U.S. ships and thousands of U.S. lives to the consequences of our cowardice.

Politicians adore proportional response. It gives them the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they are supporting retaliatory action. On the other, they are not supporting the type of action that will cause them to be accused of being, well, warlike. But military people detest proportional response, and in my view quite rightly so. It is like kicking the shins of a man with a machine gun. You do not take his capabilities away, and you do not demonstrate to him that you are serious about using your own capabilities. And you must nervously await his reaction, at the time and place of his choosing.

It is quite conceivable that the Iranians did not even marginally comprehend the power of our military until it destroyed half of their navy in a few hours. Such lack of comprehension directly affects political machinations, and the administration’s leaders are at fault for not having made the Iranians aware sooner. If retaliatory force is necessary, it must be properly directed, but it must also be ruthless and overpowering. It must anticipate an adversary’s next move, and preempt it. After the mine-laying incident of last October, appropriate use of force would have called for the elimination of much of Iran’s navy, particularly its mine-laying assets. Instead, the mine-layer that was intercepted was sunk after some debate as to whether it might be better to give it back. If we had taken appropriate action last fall, it is questionable whether the USS Roberts would have been damaged last week.

There is, of course, another alternative readily available. Our Persian Gulf operations have been conducted under the umbrella of a hazily defined set of national goals, without a clear articulation of when these responsibilities will end. It is rather disingenuous to justify current force levels by continually chanting that we have been in the Gulf for 40 years, since 38 or 39 of those years saw an American presence of two or three noncombatants. Last year, after a good bit of travail, we succeeded in defining and narrowing our military objectives to an essentially neutral policy of protecting U.S. interests in international waterways. What we have not done is to pursue this goal-setting toward its logical conclusion.

Now that we have demonstrated our naval capabilities to Iran, and at the same time destroyed much of its navy, we can afford to take a much-needed and appropriate step: to declare victory, put Iran on harsh notice and markedly reduce our naval structure in the Persian Gulf. The greatest advantage of a navy such as ours is its ability to concentrate forces during crisis and then disappear back into the sea when the crisis is resolved. This allows diplomacy to be tested without offering up our naval assets as convenient targets, and also would enable us to control the initiative if military force again became necessary.
The writer, former Secretary of the Navy, resigned over policy differences in February.