Clearly, Iraq is responsible for the deaths of the 37 American sailors aboard the U.S.S. Stark in the Persian Gulf on Sunday, May 17. We can only guess at Iraq's motives for attacking the ship, and whether it was deliberate or not. However, we should not have to guess at the Reagan administration's intentions behind having the ship there at all.
Furthermore, because the sailors were exercising an aspect of the Reagan administration's foreign policy, the adminstration owes the American people an explanation of why their lives were risked. However, the Reagan Adminstration has done very little to clarify this situation, other than hugging distraught members of the victim's families in front of the camera, or attempting to use the attack as some sort of sick rallying point for Reagan's inept Middle Eastern foreign policy. Reagan, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces has yet to vocally assume responsibility for those men's death.
Because of the picture the American media is painting of the attack, many Americans are under the impression the missiles would not have hit the ship, had the crew been acting responsibly. While the crew did neglect in some important actions which could have prevented the missiles from striking the ship, nothing is foolproof. Anti-missile protection on ships is not at all 100 percent effective, as witnessed when the British Naval ship, the Sheffield, was sunk by the same type of missile during the Falkland Islands War.
To fully understand the situation, the Stark's defenses against incoming air-to-ship missiles must be examined. The Stark, a small frigate, has only a few defenses against a missile attack, once the missile or missiles have been launched from the attacking plane. The two defenses which could have neutralized the Exocet missiles attacking the Stark - the Phalanx radar-gun system and a rocket system designed to lure the rocket away from the ship by producing a cloud of aluminum chaff - both rely on advance warning.
This advance warning did not come. Neither the Stark's nor the AWACS plane nearby detected the launch of the missiles launched [sic] from the Iraqi plane. As a result, no defensive measures could be enacted until it was too late. Had the Stark been able to shoot first, as it would have in a war situation, the Iraqi plane would never have made it close enough to the ship to launch its missiles.
So whose fault is it? While the Stark was not manuevered into the best possible position to handle the attack and detect any missiles approaching the ship, there are other factors involved. Former Secretary of the Navy, John F. Lehman, together with other experts and industry officials made the following points in the New York Times:
Lehman went on to say the Phalanx "shot down six out of eight" targets in its trials. According to those trials, there is a 25 percent chance of each missile getting through the Phalanx defense - and chances are increased if the Phalanx must fire at two missiles.
During wartime the Stark would be grouped with other ships who would probably have more powerful radar and better defenses against missile attacks, including the ability to jam incoming missiles. In wartime, the Stark could have shot first to defend itself. In wartime, the Stark would probably have had air cover. This all indicates that warships are built to fight wars. They are not designed to be used as tokens of interest in an area, or symbols of power. Symbols do not fight well.
The Stark was being used to demonstrate America's interest in keeping the Persian Gulf's shipping lanes open to oil tankers, just as Marines were being used to demonstrate America's interest in stabilizing Beirut. Both attempts ended in tragedy because they were incorrect uses of military force. The Marines were not allowed to keep their weapons loaded in a war zone. The Stark was [un]able to effectively carry out its operating orders, because it was not allowed to shoot first.
Worst of all, because this symbolism is backfiring and our forces appear vulnerable to attack, Reagan's policies are actually encouraging attacks upon America. A good example of this is Iran's growing belligerence over the past few days, and the threats to attack the Kuwaiti tankers whether they fly American flags or not. Although some of Reagan's attacks on other countries have been successful, they were not without losses - both in terms of men and equipment, as was the case with Libya and Grenada.
Reagan's policy of bullying smaller countries in an attempt to bolster American patriotism seems to be the inverse of Roosevelt's: "Walk softly and carry a big stick." The attack on the Stark has shown us that using gunboat diplomacy as the basis of a foreign policy is inadvisable at best - and Reagan can't even do it right.
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