(Photo source: US Navy)
They weren't "Swift boats," at least not in the US Vietnam-era sense, when American "brown water navy" gunboats chugged up the Mekong Delta, under the command of young officers like John Kerry (who later came to suffer from the slander-and-retreat tactics of the "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" campaigning for the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004).
No, the Iranian boats in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday were really high speed "cigarette boats," the kind that smugglers use to evade coastal police and customs controls. Or that terrorists could use to ram an explosive charge into US warships patrolling the Persian Gulf.
Watching the video for the first time on TV, I was amazed that the US Naval officers had not opened fire on what looked like very, very threatening behavior. Look at the video again (here, along with interesting commentary by the Weekly Standard's Stuart Koehl, a defense analyst at Johns Hopkins University's SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations). Koehl provides some useful detail on the US Navy's defensive improvements since the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, but then gives it all away when he enthuses "if we had had video this good at the Gulf of Tonkin, the world might be different today." What does he mean: if the Tonkin "incident" had been a better fabrication, we might have "won" Vietnam?
In the Persian Gulf on Sunday, either the Rules of Engagement ("ROE") were so restrictive as to preclude opening up with everything you have, or - if you somehow "know" that it's just dangerous-but-playful behavior, not really threatening - then just turning on the video camera. Assuming that every sailor has a video camera, when are we going to see further footage, say, from the cruiser at the tail of the convoy, to which the Iranian speedboats were closest? In other words, I am perplexed by this curious incident, which the Iranians first called "normal," before they claimed that the video footage had been fabricated (see Wonkette for an amusing take on the incident, which, thanks to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, we learn "was not a smart thing to do," but then added that his comments should not be seen as a threat (?)).
Now, to New Hampshire, and the primary election on Tuesday which catapulted Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton to the front of their respective parties' campaigns. Wait a minute: aren't these the same two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who are known for their national security "experience?" Whatever Rudy Giuliani's pretensions to the mantle of the "tough-on-terrorism" candidate, among Republicans it is still John McCain who has been in harm's way in combat, and has serious knowledge of security matters. And Hillary Clinton has done much to burnish her national security credentials, starting with her vote authorizing the Bush invasion of Iraq, and standing with the administration in its recent effort to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Check the exit polls from New Hampshire. While I have yet to see anyone cite the Iranian Persian Gulf incident as a reason for voting for either McCain or Clinton, national security "experience" is front and center among voters' concerns.
So, back to the Iranians, who cannot have been unaware of their confrontation's timing - the Sunday before the first non-caucus primary election in the home of the "Great Satan" - and its potential impact on US elections. What if the Navy's ROE had resulted in shooting? That would have had its effect - in the Middle East and in the US - and not just in New Hampshire. Just whose side are the Iranians on? Don't they want Barack Obama's arguments favoring talking to the Iranians to prevail?
Better analysts than me - the respected British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) - reported on the eve of the 2004 Bush-Kerry match that the US invasion of Iraq "helps al-Qaeda recruit." Others have noted how many Republican pundits have long preached on the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton candidacy for the Democrats in the 2008 general election - almost as if they want that to happen (all the better to have another Clinton to Swift Boat rather than a Barack Obama?). I am not suggesting an Ahmedinajad-RNC cabal to thrust Senator Hillary Clinton back into front runner-ship, but I am most definitely saying that while Americans continue to occupy Iraq, and while US Navy ships are in harm's way, unexpected "incidents" can happen anytime. We had better get used to the notion that events over the horizon - perhaps more than leaking tear ducts - can have an insidious impact on Americans' choice of candidates.