“It was a dangerous gesture,” said President George W. Bush about Sunday’s incident that involved five vessels, apparently under orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, harassing U.S. naval forces in international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. They broke off moments before the Americans opened fire.
“An ordinary occurrence,” said a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
“There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships,” Mr. Bush countered.
Mr. Bush is right, and the world came very close to war on Sunday. From the 18th century to the present day, threats to American ships and maritime commerce have been the way most U.S. wars start. The pattern began early. Attacks by the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean led President Thomas Jefferson to send the U.S. Navy thousands of miles on a risky expedition to suppress the threat to American merchant ships in 1801. During the Napoleonic Wars, British and French interference with U.S. commerce led to a series of crises and undeclared “quasi-wars” that culminated in the War of 1812.
Sumatran attacks on U.S. ships in the 1830s led President Andrew Jackson to dispatch naval forces on a retaliatory mission. The widespread (though probably erroneous) U.S. belief that the USS Maine had been destroyed by a Spanish mine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, forced a reluctant President William McKinley to launch the Spanish-American War in 1898.