U.S. military counteraction? To act militarily against that outside intervention was to support a country (Somalia) bent on obtaining another state's territory by aggression and an insurgent movement seeking to dismantle Ethiopia. A show of force directed against Ethiopia's sovereignty and territorial integrity would have been a disaster for what little world order that does exist and would have alienated many Third World nations with no great prospect of significantly bolstering the Somalis and Eritreans. No one suggested seriously that U.S. ground forces be deployed or vast amounts of armaments be delivered to Ethiopia's adversaries.
To return to Iran, only weeks ago a four-ship U.S. task group led by the guided missile cruiser Sterett exercised in the Arabian Sea with Iranian naval units, thus informing Iranian military leaders that the United States would continue its close relationship with them. Done without fanfare, this operation was not incendiary to the shah's opposition. By contrast, the appearance of the Constellation in the Gulf in the most recent circumstances would have been highly provocative, not only to the extremist factions, but also to the Soviet Union.
Further, both Iranian and Soviet leaders perceive that a single carrier task group cannot project the military power necessary to gain control of the situation in Iran. As a symbol, it would coerce no one, for it would be correctly recognized as representing a U.S. desire for flexibility, not a firm U.S. commitment.
A single carrier visting a foreign nation in quiet times can reinforce good relations and raise the specter of U.S. military power non-provocatively; but it is a highly ambiguous and even weak gesture in a time of crisis when local parties are strongly committed, when the U.S.S.R. can credibly bring massive military power to bear, and when it is apparent that the American people are not exhorting Washington to intervene militarily. Such was the lesson of the embarrassing deployment of the Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.
It would have been ironic that while bringing about a perceptual debasement of American military power the administration had as its real purpose the bolstering of confidence in Riyadh. The visit by a squadron of F15s to Saudi Arabia represents a more direct and sensible pursuit of that goal with a much lower risk to U.S. interests in Iran.
A very strong show of force might yet be appropriate if the Soviet Union does seriously threaten to intervene, or if the Iranian military needs to be bolstered against domestic forces aligned closely with the U.S.S.R. who might take over the country by force. In the absence of such threats, however, the use of American military power in the Persian Gulf would be frivolous and dangerous.
President Carter acted wisely when he decided against sending a task force led by the aircraft carrier Constellation to Iranian waters and to substitute instead a visit by a squadron of F15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the president has consistently acted sensibly when faced with decisions about using the military as an instrument of state-craft.
Only a month after the president's inauguration, Idi Amin suddenly forbade Americans to leave Uganda, raising grave concern about their safety in that bloody land. U.S. policymakers leveled no public threats, and no Marine or airborne units were brought within closer striking distance of Uganda. (A four-ship U.S. naval squadron led by the carrier Enterprise was in East African waters by chance and represented no provocation.) By avoiding an open contest of will with the erratic Ugandan leader, while communicating that the United States took a serious view of threats to Americans abroad, the administration achieved its objective quietly and completely.
Then in July 1977 a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down after blundering deep within the North Korean part of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. Only a year earlier two U.S. Army officers had been brutally murdered in the DMZ by North Korean soldiers. Rather than overreact by seeing this new North Korean military action as a provocation calling for a U.S. military response, the president got the facts and recognized the attack on the helicopter as being within the rules of that continuing confrontation.
Nor did things turn out badly for Zaire in 1978 when insurgents operating from Angola sought to detach its mineral-rich Shaba province. On that occasion, President Carter let France and Belgium carry the ball and refused to go further than to allow U.S. aircraft to transport soliders from Morocco, Senegal and Gabon and some U.S. supplies to Zaire. Again U.S. interests did not suffer because of restraint: Shaba was secured, and, afterward, Zaire and Angola worked out a modus vivendi .
But, it may be asked, what about the Horn of Africa, where a massive Soviet arms airlift and Cuban troops were allowed to carry the day without fear of