“Geography and interest have made freedom of the seas a persistent flashpoint in U.S. history: The U.S. is relatively safe from land assault, but our commerce is vulnerable to naval attacks. And international trade has been a vital interest. British restrictions on colonial trade stoked American anger, and British closure of the port of Boston helped turn discontent into revolution. The record is plain: Those who interfere with American maritime activity, whether naval or commercial, strike at a vital interest that Americans for more than two centuries have consistently defended by, if necessary, war.”
By Walter Russell Mead
January 10, 2008; The Wall Street Journal, Page A14
“It was a dangerous gesture,” said President George W. Bush about Sunday’s incident that involved five vessels, apparently under orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, harassing U.S. naval forces in international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. They broke off moments before the Americans opened fire.
“An ordinary occurrence,” said a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
“There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships,” Mr. Bush countered.
Mr. Bush is right, and the world came very close to war on Sunday. From the 18th century to the present day, threats to American ships and maritime commerce have been the way most U.S. wars start. The pattern began early. Attacks by the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean led President Thomas Jefferson to send the U.S. Navy thousands of miles on a risky expedition to suppress the threat to American merchant ships in 1801. During the Napoleonic Wars, British and French interference with U.S. commerce led to a series of crises and undeclared “quasi-wars” that culminated in the War of 1812.
Sumatran attacks on U.S. ships in the 1830s led President Andrew Jackson to dispatch naval forces on a retaliatory mission. The widespread (though probably erroneous) U.S. belief that the USS Maine had been destroyed by a Spanish mine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, forced a reluctant President William McKinley to launch the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The 20th century was no different. German attacks on U.S. ships in World War I brought America into that war; the Japanese attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. The Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964 (alleged attacks on U.S. ships by North Vietnamese boats) led Congress to authorize President Lyndon Johnson’s use of force in Indochina. The North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968 touched off a near-war crisis at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez, a container ship, led President Gerald Ford to dispatch combat forces back to Indochina less than one month after the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. President Ronald Reagan dispatched forces to Libya in the 1980s when Moammar Gadhafi tried to claim the international waters off his coast behind a “Line of Death.” President Bill Clinton rattled the saber when Chinese forces fired missiles in the Taiwan Straits in 1995 and 1996.
Geography and interest have made freedom of the seas a persistent flashpoint in U.S. history: The U.S. is relatively safe from land assault, but our commerce is vulnerable to naval attacks. And international trade has been a vital interest. British restrictions on colonial trade stoked American anger, and British closure of the port of Boston helped turn discontent into revolution. The record is plain: Those who interfere with American maritime activity, whether naval or commercial, strike at a vital interest that Americans for more than two centuries have consistently defended by, if necessary, war.
Such crises tend to unite American opinion behind even unpopular presidents. Two centuries of experience have created a broad consensus in the U.S. that the freedom of the seas cannot be compromised or abandoned.
The link between global freedom of the seas and foreign policy has been a driving force in modern world history. Like Britain before us, the U.S. is a commercial power whose economic interests have led it to play a unique global role in the interests of making the world hospitable to its investments and trade. The Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana have both rested on sea power, and any country that challenges America’s ability to secure vital sea lanes risks the full weight of U.S. military power.
The Straits of Hormuz, site of the weekend provocation, are exceptionally sensitive. The ability of the U.S. to protect the free flow of oil through these waters is absolutely vital to the global economy. Any U.S. military response to a challenge there would be swift and overwhelming — perhaps far greater than the Iranians expect.
The danger of war between the U.S. and Iran over free passage in the Straits is very real. Iranian authorities may not fully understand the political and military consequences of such raids. The commanders of the maritime forces of the Revolutionary Guard, by all accounts less professional than the commanders of Iran’s regular navy, may be operating without central authority, and may have underestimated the likelihood and the scale of the probable U.S. response. Believing that retaliation would be minor and half-hearted, they may even be seeking a limited confrontation with the U.S. for domestic political reasons.
Last weekend, the Iranians fled before shots were fired. Good for them. If Iran wants a large-scale military conflict with a U.S. that is angry, aroused and united, endangering American naval vessels in the Straits of Hormuz is the right way to get one.
Mr. Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World” (Knopf, 2007).