We don't need a Tonkin Gulf Resolution for the Red Sea

A British Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft takes off from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to join the U.S.-led coalition to conduct air strikes against military targets in Yemen on January 11. Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defense

Aug. 7, 1964 was a dark day for the United States, when Congress passed -- with only two dissenting votes -- the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

The measure was predicated on a nonexistent North Vietnamese PT boat attack on two American destroyers on patrol in the gulf. And it led to the Vietnam War we lost.

Is America repeating a similar blunder in responding to Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping and the latest Islamic military groups' drone strike that killed three American service personnel and wounded dozens more in Jordan? The critical difference was that these attacks, unlike in the Tonkin Gulf, took place.

Clearly, Islamic groups and the Houthis have plagiarized Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, diabolically designed to elicit an Israeli overreaction. Sadly, that attack succeeded perhaps far more than Hamas' leaders envisaged. Now, Houthis and Islamic militants are deliberately provoking the United States in the expectation that overreaction will lead to an escalation of the conflicts. And sentiment in Congress seems to be beating the war drums.

The consequences of the Gaza war have raised fears of further escalation. U.S. President Joe Biden is caught in an impossible dilemma of how to both help Israel and minimize Palestinian civilian casualties without losing domestic political support from advocates for Israel and Palestine. In this danger-laden process, Biden could antagonize both groups.

With the war in Ukraine also raging, comparisons of today's threats with the World War II Axis powers have been cited. But that is a false comparison. Nazi Germany was racist and never accepted Japan as an equal. Strategic coordination between the two erstwhile allies occurred and the wars in Europe and Asia were fought independently.

Italy was part of the Axis, only adding to the Nazi burden. Benito Mussolini had to be rescued from forays into Greece, Africa and from arrest in Italy in a daring rescue by Nazi special forces. In 1945, he was arrested in Northern Italy and, with his mistress, hanged.

Today, Russia, China and Iran are not natural allies. In fact, the tensions are not dissimilar to the old Axis. Historically, culturally and strategically, China and Russia have often been adversaries. China is the very senior partner with Russia. And Iran and Russia have not always been happy neighbors.

This then is a marriage of convenience among these three disparate partners. Not as ludicrous as George W. Bush's "axis of evil" that linked Iran, Iraq and North Korea, nonetheless, this partnership needs to be carefully studied so as not to exaggerate or ignore its actual dangers and threat.

The Biden administration has been absolutely clear that it does not want to escalate these attacks into a war with Iran. Surprisingly perhaps, the United States provided intelligence to Iran warning of a pending Islamic terrorist attack. Many Americans are angered that this effort to improve relations with Tehran was met by the Jordan attack.

The Biden administration is well advised not to take the bait. A new Tonkin Gulf Resolution is not needed. It is uncertain what Iran's role is. A surrogate war with the United States cannot be in its interests, as its navy and coastal oil infrastructure are very vulnerable to destruction.

Critically important is to understand Iran's actual interests and roles with its proxies. Hezbollah does not want to provoke Israel into a real war in which it would risk retaliation and destruction by overwhelming Israeli forces.

Are Hamas, the Houthis and Islamic militants operating more or less independently from Iran in that Tehran is not dictating specific operations? We need to know. Addressing this question is vital. Still, the United States has no option other than to respond with a "shock-and-awe" campaign to these attacks.

That means targeting the leaders of these militant groups and destroying the logistics supporting operations. Of course, these groups will re-arm over time. However, halting these attacks for the short term may be good enough.

Two factors are important for the longer term. The first is that the war in Gaza must end through Israel concluding its offensive, a truce or other means of termination. That will relieve pressure from Islamic militants supporting Hamas. Second, and more important, is the Saudi-Gulf initiative to recognize Israel.

The Biden administration must act along both tracks to end the war and guide the recognition of Israel. And it must act boldly to cripple Houthi and Islamic militant capabilities. Are there risks? Yes. And the most dangerous may be a new Tonkin Gulf Resolution leading to a broader war.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.