I'm not yet convinced that a war with Iran or Korea is inevitable, but I don't dismiss the possibility that at the highest levels of the White House, such wars are already a done deal.
Daniel Ellsburg is among the latest high profile political figures to suggest that we may soon see a replay of the Tonkin Gulf incident. Ellsburg is the former State Department official who "leaked" the so-called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. Among other things, the Papers implied that LBJ used exaggerated reports of engagements in the Tonkin Gulf between U.S. and North Vietnamese naval forces to justify pre-planned expansion of air and ground operations in Vietnam. Ellsburg and others fear that the current U.S. naval "build up" in the Arabian Gulf region could produce a déjà vu all over again situation. I think that's entirely too possible, and am also concerned that the same sort of thing could happen with North Korea.
Rules of Engagement and War Powers
Americans should be aware of two key war fighting doctrine documents, both of which are unclassified and available through official government sources.
First of these is the Standing Rules of Engagement for US Forces, last updated in January of 2000. The key concept--or "prime directive," if you will--of the SROE is the Inherent Right of Self Defense:
A commander has the authority and obligation to use all necessary means available and to take all appropriate actions to defend that commander's unit and other US forces in the vicinity from a hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent. Neither these rules, nor the supplemental measures activated to augment these rules, limit this inherent right and obligation. At all times, the requirements of necessity and proportionality, as amplified in these SROE, will form the basis for the judgment of the on-scene commander (OSC) or individual as to what constitutes an appropriate response to a particular hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent.
The Inherent Right of Self Defense exists under all circumstances--peacetime, wartime and in-between time, and no other directed constraints or limitations restrict that right. Embedded in the Self Defense doctrine are four key terms.
-- Necessity. Exists when a hostile act occurs or when a force or
terrorist(s) exhibits hostile intent.
-- Proportionality. Force used to counter a hostile act or
demonstrated hostile intent must be reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude to the perceived or demonstrated threat based on all facts known to the commander at the time.
-- Hostile Act. An attack or other use of force against the United
States, US forces, and, in certain circumstances, US nationals, their
property, US commercial assets, and/or other designated non-US forces,
foreign nationals and their property. It is also force used directly to
preclude or impede the mission and/or duties of US forces, including the
recovery of US personnel and vital US Government property.
-- Hostile Intent. The threat of imminent use of force against the United States, US forces, and in certain circumstances, US nationals, their property, US commercial assets, and/or other designated non-US forces, foreign nationals and their property. Also, the threat of force to preclude or impede the mission and/or duties of US forces, including the recovery of US personnel or vital USG property.
Where Things Get Tricky
Commanders and individuals are not only expected to respond proportionally when attacked, they have an obligation to do so when "the threat of imminent force exists."
Say you're in command of a U.S. Navy missile destroyer steaming in international waters off the coast of Iran or North Korea or wherever conducting blockade operations. Tensions between the U.S. and the target country are high. It's the middle of the night. You have no fixed wing or helicopter air cover. A group of three surface contacts in formation pop up on the edge of your radar horizon, coming from the direction of a known enemy port that harbors patrol boats and steaming straight toward you at flank speed. Given that innocent merchant ships don't leave port in formation at flank speed, you know these three ships have to be military patrol boats. Given the range of modern surface-to-surface weapons, you know you're already within range of theirs. You can also reasonably assume it's a given that they have you targeted; otherwise they wouldn't be steaming straight toward you at flank speed. And given the capabilities of modern surface-to-surface missiles versus your missile defense systems, it's a given that if they shoot off a volley of six or more missiles at your ship, one or more of them will hit it.
How long do you wait before you decide it's "necessary" to do it to them before they do it to you, and your ship, and the 200 plus members of your crew?
And what measure of "proportionality" does it take to do what's necessary short of whacking the patrol boats with your own surface-to-surface missiles?
Where Things Get Trickier
So you pop off some surface-to-surface missiles of your own and sink the three patrol boats, and report the engagement to higher authority. National Command Authority (NCA, which is the President and the Secretary of Defense) uses this incident as an excuse to unleash a larger, pre-planned operation against the enemy.
When the smoke clears, the enemy claims that the three patrol boats were merely getting underway at flank speed in response to an SOS plea from a small merchant ship that was wallowing off of coastal waters.
Then it sucks to be you. The National Command Authority has high cover for unleashing its pre-planned offensive operation, and you wind up in the bottom of the dumpster.
Where Things Get Trickiest
I'm just saying…
If you are the destroyer skipper who the NCA used to justify their hidden war agenda, you might think that Congress had some sort of power to reign them in. But you'd be wrong.
The War Powers Resolution of 1973, originally intended to restrict presidential authority to start another Vietnam, actually does the exact opposite. It gives a president up to 90 days to conduct full-scale wars overseas without so much as a by your leave from Congress or anybody. And three months into any war in which the U.S. has suffered combat casualties, is it likely that any Congress would pull the plug on it?
Tricky Dick's Progeny
You'd like to think that the Bush administration chicken hawks aren't hatter-class mad enough to pull the kind of stunt I've just described, but consider the stunts they've already pulled on Iraq.
Richard Nixon protégés Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are still in power, and anyone who doesn't suffer from autism knows there's no skullduggery they're not above.
Acorns and trees, and all that.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.