But third, unlike Napoleonic France, the combatant afflicted with an ulcer in the Persian Gulf is also the one likeliest to see allies join its cause—augmenting its military might and diplomatic clout. If Tehran attacks shipping injudiciously, it will be picking a fight with the entire industrial world, not just Washington. That’s a lot of foes. Nor is the prospect of a war pitting Iran against the world mere whimsy. A combined maritime force already polices the sea in the Central Command area of responsibility. Many stakeholders in the multinational fleet have a bigger stake in the free flow of oil and gas than does the United States. In other words, the makings of a seagoing coalition to prosecute a new tanker war are already in place. Iranian antagonism could well unite such an arrangement even though many powers want to remain on good terms with the Islamic Republic. If so Tehran’s war by contingent could prove self-defeating in the end.
Strategic indiscipline on Iran’s part would widen America’s strategic vistas. If ulcer makes an apt metaphor for Iranian strategy, another medical metaphor—triage—could convey the essence of future U.S. strategy. Clausewitz counsels generals to liquidate secondary theaters or commitments if they have outlived their usefulness, are no longer worth the price necessary to uphold them, or threaten the main effort. As the keeper of the system of liberal maritime trade and commerce, the United States clearly has an interest in preserving freedom of the sea wherever it comes under threat. That does not mean the U.S. sea services—the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—must take the forefront of every effort to uphold nautical freedom. If other nations, notably Arab states and oil-thirsty European states, have more compelling interests in staring down Iran, it only makes sense that they should bear primary responsibility for the effort.
If they do, the United States can downgrade the Persian Gulf on its to-do list at last, and let the logic of self-help bring together an entente to defend freedom of the sea. Nations help themselves when forced to it. The U.S. military can lend support in areas where allied capability fails short, and at the same time liberate sea-service resources for great-power strategic competition. America can get its priorities straight in the process. Help allies and friends help themselves—but let them lead.
Triage the Iranian Ulcer.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of the forthcoming Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone. This first appeared in July 2019.