AMERICAN naval activities in the Persian Gulf have lately provided a couple of unsettling flashbacks to the Gulf of Tonkin. After the North Vietnamese attacked - or were reported to have attacked - United States destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in the summer of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the bombing of selected targets in North Vietnam. This action was widely applauded as a ``proportionate'' and ``measured'' response. Many senators who used those terms later regretted it.
Now, after Iran attacked a US-flagged Kuwaiti ship in port in Kuwait, President Reagan ordered the destruction of an Iranian oil platform in the Gulf. Again, the action has been widely applauded - by senators, among others - as ``proportionate'' and ``measured.''
The Johnson and Nixon administrations consistently misjudged and underestimated the North Vietnamese. American policy in those years was permeated with the feeling that the North Vietnamese would eventually choose not to fight if they were confronted with enough force over a long enough period of time. But those little people in black pajamas out in the jungle outlasted the US.
Now, President Reagan says there is not going to be a war with the US, because, as he puts it, the Iranians are not ``dumb.'' They simply will not resist the might of the US Navy.
Mr. Reagan may be right. The parallel is not exact. But it does seem that in both cases the US government failed adequately to take into account the motivation of the people it was dealing with. This motivation, which is of a very high order, is a mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, and, with Iran, religious zealotry.
One can argue that the US perhaps should not have undertaken to protect the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers in the first place, but that decision cannot now be reversed without further damaging US credibility, which is already weakened. The Navy's operation in the Gulf is another demonstration of how US policies sometimes take on broader objectives than they start with. This phenomenon is not unique to the Reagan administration, but it seems to be occurring more frequently than under previous presidents.
The Marines were sent to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping mission and then found themselves supporting the government in a civil war. It is doubtful if anybody intended this change; it just happened more or less inadvertently.
The Navy was sent to the Persian Gulf to protect Kuwaiti tankers flying the US flag. This in itself was rather an artful dodge to justify a US naval presence, and might not have happened if the Soviets had not also been on their way to do the same thing. (The Soviets, incidentally, are managing with seven ships; the Americans have 40.) But the Kuwaitis, who asked for this protection, won't provide any shore facilities.
Meanwhile, the effect of the Navy in the Gulf is that the US is taking sides in the Iran-Iraq war, already an expansion of the original mission. The irony is that the only attack so far on an American warship by one of the belligerents has come from Iraq, not Iran.
And what role, if any, does the US Navy have beyond providing convoy service for the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers between Kuwait's territorial waters and the entrance to the Gulf? The Iranian attack that prompted the destruction of the oil platform was on a reflagged Kuwaiti ship in Kuwait, not in the Gulf. True, it was flying the US flag, but the circumstances were a little more ambiguous than if it had been on the high seas.
Early in the Gulf operation, a Kuwaiti ship was damaged by a mine, so the US Navy got into the minesweeping business. This obviously benefits shipping in general, and is a step beyond protecting the Kuwaitis.
The administration has said the Navy is not going to be the police force for the Gulf generally, but there are a good many gray areas in which the Navy's mission might be unintentionally expanded in small increments.
Suppose some non-Kuwaiti ships happened to be in the neighborhood of an American convoy. It wouldn't matter much whether this was coincidental or whether they were tagging along without authorization. If they were attacked, that would endanger the United States warships as well as the Kuwaiti tankers. And what ``proportionate'' or ``measured'' response would the US use the next time?
This particular tunnel has many twists and turns and no light at the end. Diplomacy therefore becomes more important and urgent.
Get on with it.
Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.