May 20 (UPI) -- Despite the president's order to his acting secretary of defense not to start a war in the Persian Gulf, it is hard to discount a more sinister interpretation of the Trump administration's decision to deploy additional naval forces and bombers to the region as part of exerting "maximum pressure" on Iran.
That national security adviser John Bolton made the announcement rather than the Pentagon of this response to intelligence warnings of potential Iranian strikes against American and local forces is also troubling. After all, Mr. Bolton has expressed a clear preference "to bomb Iran before it gets the bomb." And the so far unattributed attacks on four tankers in the Gulf of Oman just outside the Gulf last Sunday have heightened fears of a potential flash point being ignited.
Unfortunately, in times of crisis, administrations are almost always deaf or forgetful of history.
Perhaps someone might caution the president against pursuing a policy of "ready, fire, aim" in these circumstances. In February 1898, USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. This became the cause celebre for starting America's war with Spain who at the time owned Cuba and were blamed for sinking the ship, killing about 200 American sailors. In fact, as it was later proven, the detonation was caused by an explosion in the ship's coaling bunkers and not by the Spanish. But war was fought in any event.
In August 1964, after USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, she was ordered back to a patrol station in the Tonkin Gulf accompanied by another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy. Both ships reported a second attack. Needing a raison d'être to escalate the war against North Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson did not wait for confirmation. Instead, Johnson ordered a retaliatory bombing of the North and Congress passed with two dissenting votes, the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution committing the country to what would become a ten-year losing war.
The second attack never occurred, and the first attack was carried out by a local commander in contradiction to orders from Hanoi not to do so. Of course, the second Iraq War that began in March 2003 was waged over weapons of mass destruction that long since had been destroyed.
So far, Congress is equally forgetful of this history. Indeed, should military action follow, it is very possible that the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), approved eighteen years ago by the 107th Congress after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could be used to justify strikes against Iran or its proxies. Should that happen, this would be a gross congressional abandonment of its constitutional responsibility to declare war.
The New York Times reported that in a review of military options, deployment of an additional 120,000 troops to the region was discussed. President Trump issued a non-denial denial, saying that if conflict arose, the U.S. would use far more force. But if that figure indeed were an option, more careful thought is vital.
In 1978, the Pentagon completed its so-called Persian Gulf study, during the Cold War. The mission was preventing a Soviet invasion into Iran from the north driving south to seize Iran's valuable oil fields. The study concluded that an American force of between 300-400,000 was required to repel such an attack. In those days, the Shah was in power and Iran was firmly on our side. With a country as large as Iran and Tehran hundreds of miles from the Gulf; a large army and larger reserve force; and population of some 80 million who would oppose any ground intervention, an invasion force of 120,000 would produce a catastrophe equivalent to Gallipoli.
Iran also has many options. Its missile forces could obliterate much of Saudi Arabia's oil facilities. It could blockade and mine the Strait of Hormuz. It could send a sizable force to occupy the island of Bahrain. It could unleash Hezbollah against Israel along with a formidable offensive cyber capacity that Americans tend to discount.
Logistically, where would a force of 120,000 Americans be stationed? How long will it take to deploy with weapons, fuel, food, water and support? Would the Saudis and UAE agree as they did in 1990 and Kuwaitis in 2003 to hosting such a force? And would Congress approve its use or defer to the president?
First and most importantly, the attacks against the tankers must be attributed and correctly so. We do not need cherry picking of intelligence, a la 2003. Second, both intended and unintended consequences must be examined. And finally, we need careful and objective consideration of options that "Remember the Maine!"
Dr. Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." He can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman