A sign for the Defense Department at the Pentagon. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Michael J. Stricof is a doctoral candidate studying American history at Aix-Marseille Université.

Tensions are escalating between the United States and Iran. After Iranians shot down an American drone, President Trump weighed the option of a retaliatory strike, which he then called off because of potential casualties. Yet as bellicose rhetoric builds, the prospect of war continues to loom.

The possibility of war with Iran has sent commentators scrambling for comparisons to the second Iraq War. Destroyed ships in the Gulf of Oman also call up memories of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to open American involvement in Vietnam in 1964. However, there is another historical comparison that may better capture the state of the current leadership in Washington and the risk of a different, dangerous path to war.

In December 1992, lame duck President George H.W. Bush committed U.S. troops to a U.N.-sanctioned humanitarian relief operation in Somalia. Operation Restore Hope was supposed to be a relatively simple mission: Deliver food and medical supplies to a war-torn country, but stay out of the fighting. It was the sort of operation that many were rallying behind in the immediate post-Cold War era; President-elect Bill Clinton publicly supported the move.

Ten months later, however, on Oct. 3, 1993, two Black Hawk helicopters carrying elite Delta Force soldiers, assigned to capture the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, were shot down over Mogadishu. This incident, infamous for images of mutilated bodies dragged through the streets, ended with 13 Americans killed and one captured. A mission designed to offer peaceful aid had slid, almost unnoticed, into a Special Forces operation and ended with a firefight in the streets and an American defeat.

While in many ways a very different situation than the current tensions building around Iran, the Somalia example reveals that weak leadership at the Defense Department, which we have again today, can be catastrophic in a period of potential conflict.

How did a humanitarian assistance mission lead to a Special Operations debacle? After all, American soldiers weren’t supposed to be looking for firefights; they were supposed to be distributing food. While a considerable amount of the shifting mission had to do with changing U.N. missions, on the American side the problem was due to a lack of leadership, notably in the Defense Department itself.

When Bush committed troops, he knew he would be leaving an ongoing military operation in the hands of his successor. This meant near-immediate turnover at every level of management except for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where Colin Powell would remain chairman until September 1993.

In addition to the usual changeover at the beginning of an administration, Clinton’s team got off to a rocky start because Defense Secretary Les Aspin was largely ineffective. He had no major management experience. While he had been chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, his collegial style did not mesh well with the tightly run Pentagon. Aspin also spent much of his first six months in office distracted by social issues, forced to handle the firestorm over Clinton’s attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military, leading to the mixed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and addressing women in combat roles and sexual assault in the military following the 1991 Tailhook aviators conference scandal.

Aspin wasn’t the only one distracted. In the first half of 1993, no one in Washington was really paying attention. Clinton was focused on his domestic agenda, including his struggles to implement new deficit reduction measures. National security adviser Tony Lake meanwhile was preoccupied with elaborating a broader strategy of “Engagement and Enlargement,” which encouraged new post-Cold War deployments. That left the Defense Department to resist the “mission creep” that eventually led to disaster.

In traditional circumstances, this would have been fine. The Defense Department is historically conservative about the use of American military power. Institutional concerns with maintaining resources and a ready force for real threats to American security make it resistant to other missions, often leading it to push back against political or diplomatic leaders hoping to bring U.S. force to bear as a solution to less-than-existential threats.

Some of this traditional dynamic played out in the early months of the Clinton administration. Famously, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, who supported more direct U.S. involvement in Bosnia, frustratedly asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” In his memoir, Powell described his reaction: “I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.”

But in the fall of 1993, Powell was on his way out. He had finished his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was preparing to retire at the end of September, just a few days before the Black Hawk incident.

Aspin meanwhile was focused on rolling out a major policy review. He would later be blamed for not approving additional backup for the Army Rangers and Delta Force before the mission to capture Aidid began. Although there is debate among historians about the importance of Aspin’s decision, it gave the Clinton administration somewhere to lay the blame.

In reality, however, as journalist David Halberstam put it, it was “the vagueness and drift in the administration’s policy” that deserved more of the blame for the Battle of Mogadishu. The lack of leadership in the Pentagon, while the president and the national security adviser focused on other things, allowed the mission to creep toward outright combat without any real debate over the potential risks.

The debacle, which outraged Americans, cost Aspin his job. The Clinton administration eventually found its footing in defense, although not before overlooking genocide in Rwanda and retreating from Haiti while the shock of defeat in Somalia wore off.

Today, circumstances are in some ways very different from 1993. It’s not the first year of the president’s term, and an experienced national security adviser, John Bolton, is in place. But there is again weak leadership at the Defense Department at a precarious moment. The well-respected secretary Jim Mattis departed in December over policy disagreements with the president. Acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan proved weak, uncomfortably trying to please Trump by justifying the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, which Mattis had refused to do, prompting his resignation. Now Shanahan, too, is out, and a new acting secretary, Army Secretary Mark T. Esper, is in.

Trump has said he doesn’t want to start a war with Iran, but he has also been sending mixed messages. And the weakness at the Defense Department could prove especially significant in the bureaucratic negotiations that shape the president’s agenda.

Bolton has long been an unabashed hawk, and the fear in policymaking circles is that he will push toward war. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another hawk on Iran, is also sounding threats. Normally, the defense secretary could be counted on to argue against committing U.S. troops. However, a Defense Department lacking leadership leaves a power vacuum that makes it possible that these other voices will win out.

Inattention in the Pentagon also can lead to poorly managed situations that may lead to unplanned, explosive moments of conflict, as the retaliatory strike Trump called off Thursday illustrated. One Gulf of Tonkin-like incident with few voices arguing for caution could very possibly lead to open war, and a poorly managed war at that. Iran is not the only concern; the administration has practiced brinkmanship with North Korea, Venezuela and, via trade policy, China. Although the 1993 Somalia case ended with American withdrawal, history is full of examples that went the other way.