A U.S. Navy patrol boat leaves a U.S. Navy 5th Fleet base near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates.
The United States has accused Iran of attacking civilian commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Persian Gulf—four ships in May, and two last week. There is evidence, even if inconclusive, to support the claim, and Iran or its proxies are the most likely culprit by simple inference. The situation is escalating quickly, with Iran shooting down a U.S. drone and President Trump reportedly ordering retaliatory strikes before calling them off at the last moment. We can be grateful that conflict was averted Thursday night, but both sides are demonstrating an alarmingly high risk tolerance. Despite running against new adventures in the Middle East, Trump seems to be staggering toward war.
What should Washington do next? The right answer is as little as possible. Republicans pilloried President Obama for “leading from behind” when Europe took an uncommonly visible military role in Libya (though, in fact, it was not the President’s line). Nelson Mandela taught that leading from behind is an important skill, allowing statesmen to achieve their aims without squandering resources, and it is the best remaining tactic for President Trump on Iran.
Assuming Iranian culpability, the attacks are certainly a reaction to the severe macroeconomic effects of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions following his unstrategic withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Having dramatically reduced Iranian oil sales and other international commerce, the administration is running out of tools to tighten Iran’s economic isolation. Hawkish voices in Washington are demanding dramatic military action, and they have been influential on Trump in the past, but if the U.S. attempts to sink Iran’s navy, it would be hard to maintain the pretense that the president does not want a war.
The military is reportedly pursuing a more traditional response by seeking partners for an operation to protect freedom of navigation in the vital oil market waterways. With U.S. imports from the Gulf at historic lows, more dependent Asian and European countries have every reason to protect the region’s commerce.
But building military coalitions is hard under the best circumstances, and these are anything but. The United States is desperately short of credibility. Key allies are reluctant to give U.S. intelligence findings on Iran’s attacks in the shipping lanes the benefit of the doubt—a hangover both of President Trump's astounding dishonesty and earlier episodes of U.S. overreach.
The bigger problem is not that potential partners do not trust U.S. assessments; it is that they categorically do not trust U.S. leadership. The U.S. is widely seen as having created this crisis over the objections of allies and partners. There is a deep fear that Washington will find any opening to make the conflict worse, so that a freedom of navigation mission would become the pretext for a war. A war that neither our allies nor the American public wants.
This points to an unusual conclusion. Normally, the U.S. is best able to attract coalition partners when it demonstrates “skin in the game” by taking the bulk of the military burden in any conflict. But if the U.S. is leading a naval mission and providing the frontline forces, it will be hard to assure skeptical partners that they are more than window dressing to an escalating crisis manufactured by Donald Trump’s belligerent incompetence.
Instead, the U.S. should step back and encourage others to lead and staff a modest freedom of navigation mission. This will allow partners with a real interest in Persian Gulf commerce to contribute without fearing a military spiral they do not control.
In one possible model, Europe has managed naval missions to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa and to address migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean (with mixed results). To be clear, the U.S. would probably need to play a role through very limited contributions to logistical support, emergency response, and technical functions like intelligence, leaving others to both command the mission and be its face. By reducing the possibility of direct contact between U.S. and Iranian military forces, this would minimize the risk of accidental escalation. Even more, offering to step back would also send a vital signal that the U.S. is simply interested in securing freedom of navigation and is not looking for a provocation to launch a war.
Major European powers are best equipped to lead a Gulf mission, with some support from Asian countries that are more dependent on Gulf oil, like the Indian deployment announced Thursday. Although any maritime operations would require regional support, it should not be a regional coalition so as to avoid exacerbating tensions between Iran and its neighbors. In particular, it must distance itself from recent U.S.-built institutions targeting Iran, like the so-called Warsaw process or the Middle East Strategic Alliance.
An ally-led mission merely supported by the U.S. should seek U.N. legitimacy. This should not be assumed to be impossible. After all, Iran has loudly denied any role in the attacks and so would have few grounds to object if a nonadversarial coalition provided security against an evident threat; Tehran has even turned to the U.N. Despite the Trump administration’s distaste for multilateral institutions, U.N. support would be a measure of international commitment to enforcing rules of international behavior, even when the politics are hard.
The U.S. would probably need to play a quiet, behind-the-scenes role identifying leaders and resources for a naval mission and mobilizing diplomatic support. That may be the limit of U.S. diplomatic capacity in any case with key positions in Washington unfilled—Patrick Shanahan was far and away the longest-serving Acting Secretary of Defense before leaving the post to an even more anonymous former arms industry executive this week.
This may sound absurd. European and Asian countries would be right to object that the U.S. created this mess and that they should not be required to risk blood and treasure to address it. The Trump administration’s policies have left everyone with nothing but bad options, and a small naval mission with the U.S. far in the background may be the best way for countries that do not want a war to help prevent it.
Or this may sound like a “modest proposal,” but President Trump should be able to embrace it. It is a better application of his concern for burden-sharing than an obsession with defense spending. Most importantly, if Trump actually wants to avoid a war with Iran, Iran is unlikely to give him the kind of public concessions that would allow him to back off confrontation without loosing face. Handing the problem off to other countries better able to manage it without escalations and provocations would be an elegant way back from the brink.