“Whatever lay behind the indecisive Trump administration response to the alleged Sept. 14 Iranian missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities, one thing is clear. The United States’ ability to project power into the Persian Gulf region via carrier strike groups, the go-to U.S. option in such situations for decades, is not what it used to be, nor what it might have been.
Not long ago, a modern version of gunboat diplomacy—dispatching carriers or guided missile cruisers to the region to loiter menacingly offshore—could have decisively influenced events. In 1981, carrier aircraft slapped down a territorial grab by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in the Gulf of Sidra by downing two of his fighters. Parking a carrier off Lebanon the next year pressed a cease-fire on Israel and Lebanese factions long enough to affect a U.S.-organized evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, removing at least one source of the country’s chaos. And similarly, in 1996, U.S. President Bill Clinton reacted to provocative Chinese war games off Taiwan by sending two carriers to the Taiwan Strait, leading Beijing to back down in a humiliation cited frequently today as a reason for China’s own naval buildup.
That’s why, for now, tough talk may remain just that.”