In the history of the United States and its history of interventionism, the recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman seem to be foreboding and ominous signs of what may come—an inevitable war with the Islamic Republic of Iran? To many who are watching the region closely, it is still unclear if Iran is behind such attacks. Moreover, and, thankfully, President Donald J. Trump backed away from bombing Iran after the Iranians allegedly and recently shot down a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
Even so, the bellicose rhetoric between President Trump (threatening Iran’s “obliteration”) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (calling Trump “mentally retarded”) have continued. Watching from the sidelines, everyone hopes diplomacy will prevail.
Let us examine U.S. interventionism past more closely. I know of four clear international instances where the United States intervened under dubious circumstances, initiating war.
The first happened just before the beginning of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). President James K. Polk sent American troops to the Rio Grande River under the command of Zachary Taylor. The Mexicans had believed that the border had been at the Nueces River, not the Rio Grande, the Nueces being significantly north of the Rio Grande. This move was provocative and incited Mexican forces to attack the U.S. Army at its fortifications on the Rio Grande in 1846. As the attacks on U.S. soldiers were reported by Taylor to Polk, the U.S. Congress promptly declared war on Mexico.
Yet, in understanding these incidents, we have to likewise understand the motivations of the historical actors. Polk strongly believed in the Manifest Destiny of the United States to conquer the territories west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, Polk initially sent U.S. Congressman John Slidell as U.S. envoy to Mexico to negotiate buying the territories of California and New Mexico from Mexico for about $30 million. (The California and New Mexico territories included present-day California and New Mexico plus Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado.) But Mexican legislators balked at the offer and Mexican newspapers printed the offer as an insult to Mexican pride. The rejected buy simply became war of territorial conquest.
At the end of the 19thcentury was the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States made its debut as an imperialistic world power, seeking its own colonies despite rejecting empire with the American Revolution. Congress declared war on Spain after the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor. With no evidence, the U.S. blamed Spain and the war was on—not just for Cuba, but for other Spanish colonies, and the U.S. thus acquired Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
However, in all likelihood, the ship exploded because of an accident, possibly, a spark from the furnace setting off munitions nearby. Or, a mine in Havana Harbor planted by Cuban rebels detonated the hull of the vessel. In total, 261 sailors lost their lives from the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine. Yet, the causes of the war had more to do with the sensationalism of newspapers at the time owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, called “Yellow Journalism”—what we call today, “fake news.” Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers were publishing stories about Spanish atrocities in Cuba. Moreover, there was the supposed “de Lôme letter” allegedly a critical letter of President William McKinley, written by the Spanish Foreign Minister Enrique Dupuy de Lôme. All of these events “justified” war with Spain.
There was also the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” which began and escalated the Vietnam War under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The incident was allegedly a series of attacks by Northern Vietnamese naval torpedo vessels on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, especially involving a destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox. These skirmishes were said to have occurred on August 2 and August 4, 1964, with the second clash now believed to be entirely imaginary. The falsity of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents was allegedly substantiated by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the former Vietnam People’s Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp. The Gulf of Tonkin skirmishes with the U.S. Navy and the Northern Vietnamese Navy led to the U.S. Congress passing the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” It gave President Johnson: “…all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
And lastly, there is the Iraq War (2003-2011). The United States invaded Iraq on the false pretext that Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, was actively developing a program for obtaining alleged WMDs. The United Nations Security Council had earlier passed two resolutions (678 and 687) which allowed the United States to force Iraq into complying with its international agreements, concerning biochemical and nuclear disarmament; both the UN head of inspections and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iraq had no more weapons of mass destruction, yet the U.S. invaded. What is more, the intelligence community tried linking the Hussein government with Al-Qaeda, patently false. As a result of the George W. Bush Administration’s War in Iraq, there were nearly 4,500 U.S. soldier deaths and almost 32,000 U.S. soldiers wounded in action.
So, this brings us to today with our military escalation with Iran under the Donald J. Trump Administration. Currently, we have deployed an aircraft carrier to the Arabian Sea as well as sending a Patriot missile defense system and four B-52 bombers to the region along with ordering the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with the exception of essential personnel. According to Middle East expert Ilan Goldenberg Iran does not want a war with the United States. The question is whether we are forcing the situation, or unnecessarily exaggerating the threats from Iran. Certainly, it may depend upon how much National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocate for war. As Goldenberg states: “The bad news is that a war could still happen. Even if neither side wants to fight, miscalculation, missed signals, and the logic of escalation could conspire to turn even a minor clash into a regional conflagration—with devastating effects for Iran, the United States, and the Middle East.”
My worry, along with many other observers, is that such a conflict may snowball into a worse conflagration bringing in other international actors, maybe Russia. Neither the attack on these oil tankers nor the alleged shoot-down of an unmanned US drone so far has not led to any Gulf of Tonkin resolution. However, if another incident occurred causing Americans casualties and Iran was the claimed culprit, then the situation may get out of control.
For now, we can only hope from a distance that cooler heads in Washington, D.C. will prevail. We can certainly listen to diplomatic efforts of the likes of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Iran does not want war with the United States and its coalition partners. We can examine the U.S. history of interventionism and learn from our past military mistakes.
If you are concerned about this pattern of provoking war by making claims that cannot be proven, please participate in your democracy:
Here is a petition against this possible war that you can sign online: https://www.change.org/p/stop-war-with-iran
Write a quick note to your US Senators: https://www.senate.gov/senators/How_to_correspond_senators.htm
Send your thoughts to your member of Congress: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative