As the director of a VOA bureau in Cairo, I can remember hearing Israel’s opening salvo of bombing on airfields just outside the Egyptian capital. It marked the start, at 10 a.m. that sweltering Monday morning of June 5, 1967, of the six-day Arab-Israeli war whose scars even today endanger yet another generation in the perpetually crisis-prone Middle East.
Once again, that region offers a maximum challenge to U.S. public diplomacy.
A glance at the titles of conflicting essays the morning of June 19 on this side of the Atlantic four decades later speaks again of the looming prospects of conflict, this time between America and Iran:
“TRUMP IS MISLEADING AMERICA INTO A NEW WAR” — The LobeLog
“TRUMP CHARACTERIZES ALLEGED ATTACKS BY IRAN ON TANKERS AS ‘VERY MINOR’ ” — The Washington Post
“DON’T EXPECT THE U.S. TO SECURE ARABIAN GULF SHIPPING ALONE, TOP AIR FORCE GENERAL SAYS” — DefenseNews.com
Unpacking these themes, one by one:
- Lobe Log writers Joe Cirincione and Mary Kaszynski write: “President Trump says he does not want war with Iran. Perhaps the entire war scare is just another neurotic impulse. Or he may believe that he is deftly executing a ‘fire and fury” feint, as with North Korea earlier, where he threatens war and ‘the end of Iran’ only to back down and offer talks… With Trump’s approval (his advisers) have taken a series of steps, beginning with the ill-advised and unnecessary abrogation of the Iran anti-nuclear accord, to provoke a conflict.”
- Washington Post writers John Wagner and Paul Sonne on June 18:
“President Trump in aTime Magazine interview (June 17) characterized alleged attacks by Iran against two tankers in the Gulf of Oman as ‘very minor’… Trump’s assessment reflected a softer policy, Time added, “than that of senior administration officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as some congressional Republicans, as tensions between the United States and Iran have flared recently.”
“In the Time interview,” according to the Post reporters, “Trump said he would ‘certainly’ go to war to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon… last week, Trump administration officials blamed Iran for attacks against Norwegian and Japanese tankers carrying petrochemicals. ‘So far, it’s been very minor’, Trump told Time. Speaking to reporters June 18,”Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “a new deployment of 1,000 (U.S.) troops to the Middle East was intended to deter aggression. President Trump does not want war.”
- David Larter of DefenseNews.com agrees. He quotes U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva , vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff as saying: “We’ve maintained across the world a position of defending freedom of navigation. Specifically, in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf, we’ve taken on an international responsibility of ensuring freedom of navigation and the movement of oil in and out of the Gulf. That doesn’t mean it’s a U.S.- only problem.
“If we take this on as a U.S.-only responsibility”, General Selva adds, nations that depend on that movement of their petroleum exports through the Persian Gulf are bearing little or no responsibility for safeguarding the economic benefit they gain from the export and sale of their oil.
As DefenseNews.com’s David Larter points out, U.S. imports of oil from the Gulf states today meets only 10 percent of its needs, far less than three decades ago when Mideast oil was a predominant source of energy here.
As a longtime observer of the Mideast, I believe there’s a desperate need for a unified Western and global response to quickly build a solid alliance, military and civilian, aimed at averting another war in that troubled region.
The response of the George H. W. Bush administration to Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1989 and 1990 might serve as an example. Then, President Bush organized and led a multinational political and military alliance to deal with a serious crisis. In a few days, after several months of coalition building, Saddam Hussein’s forces were expelled from Kuwait.
Three decades later, Post columnist David Ignatius noted: “Trump sought to calm war fever (June 18) by telling Time Magazine that last week’s tanker attacks were ‘very minor’ and that it was a ‘question mark’ whether he would take military action to protect other tankers.
“The real question mark in foreign capitals these days,” Mr. Ignatius concluded, “is what Trump’s Iran policy really is.” This crisis appears to call for a desperately needed civilian-military international coalition and wise public diplomacy to handle this latest Gulf crisis — with not a moment to lose.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More