Walter Russell Mead on why the "incident" in the Strait of Hormuz this Sunday between three U.S. naval vessels and five Iranian speedboats is important:
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....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 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.
As we learn more about the Iranian incident, Tonkin Gulf is looking like a pretty apt analogy. The American videotape was spliced together, the threatening voices probably didn't come from the speedboats, and there's no sign that any "boxes" were dropped in the water. On the Iranian side, their competing videotape is simply a complete fabrication, taken earlier in the morning and having nothing to do with the incident. So in the end, as Fred Kaplan concludes in Slate,
nobody knows what was really going on, who authorized it, or how close we came to getting sucked into a shooting war:
And yet, as Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told the Boston Globe's Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman on Monday, the U.S. commanders have no systematic way to halt a conflict if it begins to spiral. "I do not have a direct link with my counterpart in the Iranian Navy," he said. "I do not have a way to communicate directly with the Iranian Navy or [Revolutionary] Guard."
Through the darkest days of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained a hot line. During most of those times, there were parallel forums for communication between the two sides' senior officers. Iran doesn't pose anything remotely resembling the threat that the United States and the Soviet Union posed to each other in those years. Here is yet another reason to establish diplomatic relations with Iran. You don't have to be friends to talk.