Op-Eds by Jim

Milo Mindbender Would Be Impressed

July 18, 1988
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal

Are we saying we’ll stay in the Gulf for so long as Iran is at war with Iraq? If so, does that make us an ally of Iraq? If so, is this in our national interest?

American commentators have a proclivity for bypassing the jugular on defense issues and going straight for the capillary. So it is unsurprising that media analysis of the shootdown of the Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes has focused repeatedly on the technical aspects of the Aegis radar system, rather than why the Aegis was positioned 24 hours a day in the Straits of Hormuz, and on whether the captain had sufficient justification to order a shootdown, rather than on who put him in such an untenable situation in the first place.

Yes, here we go again: Blunder in the Gulf. Does the Navy have the right ships? The top leadership has stumbled repeatedly in development of force structure and use of force as it pursues an unfocused, open-ended commitment in the Gulf and yet is questioned by the media only the vaguest terms, while the military that must put such concepts into practice is left holding the bag when things go wrong.

Blaming the Navy

A year ago, the Bridgeton hit a mine in international waters off of Farsi Island while being escorted by U.S. Navy ships under the controversial agreement to reflag Kuwaiti tankers. Instead of blaming the Iranians for their unprecedented act of mining international waterways, the tendency was to blame the Navy. And instead of reacting to this aggression by destroying Iranian naval assets, defense leaders responded by saturating the Gulf with American military forces that were not supposed to engage their aggressor, but instead were supposed to intimidate him by their mere presence.

Rather than destroying Iran’s ability to lay mines, the decision was made to continually sweep for the mines they were laying. Minesweepers made their way from American coastal enclaves, some called up from the reserves, even though the Saudis possessed modern minesweepers sold to them by the U.S. precisely for this contingency. Barges provided by Kuwait became floating U.S. military bases with the mission of intercepting minelayers if they were caught in the act. One was caught in the act and after great debate was sunk; its crew returned to Iran.

Other hostile acts were responded to by target practice on oil platforms. At the end of April, after the USS Roberts was hit and probably permanently removed from the fleet by an Iranian mine, two more oil platforms were destroyed. In the “fog of war” that followed, we destroyed half of the Iranian navy in a few hours. And since that time we have decided to defend all ships that request assistance against all acts of aggression by Iran.

What’s going on here? There is general world-wide agreement that the U.S. “belongs” in the Persian Gulf. But analysis too seldom questions the goals of the U.S., and how military forces should be shaped by those goals. Over the past year the role of our military has changed from the protection of U.S. interests in international waters, to a rather aggressive and general form of “neutrality,” to a clear tilt toward Iraq that included protection of allied vessels under attack, and finally to a self-appointed mission of protecting all shipping against Iranian attacks. It was under this all-encompassing, protective rubric that the USS Vincennes was stationed full-time inside the narrow Straits of Hormuz at the end of June, and it was while protecting a Danish ship from Iranian gunboats that the Vincennes engaged the Airbus that had taken off from nearby Bandar Abbas.

At no point since the beginning of our increased Persian Gulf presence have government leaders clearly announced what our national goals are, how we will know when they have been accomplished, and under what circumstances we will decide to reduce our military force structure. Such analytical planning has not taken place inside government, either. Our military forces have been put to dangerous tasks under vague political direction, with no indication as to what it will take to complete their mission.

Lacking clear political goals, our responses to Iranian aggression have been confusing. We have failed to use the right kind of force when it was needed. We have used force when we should not have, and on behalf of nations that do not really deserve our protection. And most important, we have not taken advantage of the versatility that naval assets offer, and reduced our military force structure in a way that emits clear diplomatic signals. A golden opportunity in this regard was lost after the USS Roberts was hit. The need for a sense of timing is a lesson that the administration should have learned in Beirut.

What exactly, is a “win” in these circumstances? A year ago, the reaction inside the administration was that every successful convoy escort was a “win,” which led to some cynicism among the sailors who were doing the escorting. Congratulations, you won. Go back and get another one. Since the decision has been made to engage Iran on behalf of everyone who requests assistance, are we now saying that we will stay in the Gulf for so long as Iran contests Iraq’s supply line, which means for so long as it is at war with Iraq? If so, does that make us an ally of Iraq? If so, is this itself in our national interest?

Those with even rudimentary knowledge of this region know that its international complexities and divided loyalties are so overwhelming that even Milo Minderbinder, the famed character in Catch22 who by the end of the book was being paid by both sides to supply and conduct World War II battles, would be impressed. Consider a few of the realities:

The Iraqis have never been our friends, and in fact have been the major Soviet friend in the region for many years.

Kuwait was willing to make a deal with the Soviets before we agreed to reflag a number of its vessels, and despite all our help had no compunctions against making a deal with them for military arms a few days ago.

The Saudis have had a large impact on our decision-making process. In an unusual move, Prince Bandar was receiving weekly briefings in the Joint Chiefs of Staff while I was in the Pentagon. They have excellent mine-sweeper assets that we sold them, and yet have declined to take over the sweeping mission, claiming that their sailors are not up to the job. They’ve cheered us on as we undertook “brown-water” missions such as mine-sweeping and barges bases in the Gulf, which should have been their own responsibility. And then they bought long-range missiles from China (which is a principal supplier Of Iran), and now have announced a $30 billion weapons purchase from Britain.

The Japanese, who receive more than half the oil that flows out of the Straits of Hormuz, have declined to help us in the Persian Gulf, other than to parcel out a few million for navigational aids, and to offer vague bribes if we will escort their ships. Some believe it is their lack of naval assets, which is palpably wrong. Others believe their constitution precludes such operations, which also is wrong. The Japanese, who have been positioning themselves at the financial center of the East, West, and Third World, know that taking a military stand inevitably creates diplomatic resentments. In a manner reminiscent of their dealings elsewhere in the world, they have retained their excellent relations with Iran while we have spent dollars and national reputation protecting their interests.

At the time of the Airbus incident, the Vincennes was defending a Danish ship from attacks by Iranian gunboats. Remember the Danes? They haven’t helped us in the Gulf and are sticking to a “no nukes” policy on visits by our Navy.

The other day, U.S. helicopters fired on Iranian gunboats that were preparing to attack a Panamanian ship near Farsi Island. Remember the Panamanians? We felt strongly enough about the corruption of their government that we attempted to shut it down a few months ago.

Protecting Our Own Interests

Obviously, many considerations have caused these inconsistencies, and it would be wrong to condemn nations that act in the best interests of their people. The problem is that the U.S. must start acting in the same way. Our national interests dictate that we should be protecting our own interests in international waterways, and perhaps those of allies who are clearly reciprocating. If we had been following this precept, we would not have tethered the Vincennes in the Straits of Hormuz to defend against the Silkworm threat on behalf of all comers, and we would have thought twice about defending ships of countries that aren’t defending us either physically or rhetorically.

Iran is not our enemy, except to the extent that it attacks our vessels or our people, and then it should be dealt with severely. Iraq is not our friend, except to the extent that it continues in the wake of the Stark incident to respect our vessels, our people, and our desire to see an end to the war, which it began nine years ago. And the naval forces that protect our interests in the Persian Gulf should be maneuverable, structured for swift and massive retaliation if required, and fluidly deployed depending on the ever-changing circumstances that caused their temporarily enlarged presence in the first place. And over the long term, the littoral countries in the Gulf have both the finances and the capability to deploy their own permanent “brown-water” assets in that region.