Lamenting Lack of War

Well, as I predicted a few days ago, the release of the British hostages/captives/whatever has been quickly followed by lamentations and gnashing of teeth. As David Pryce-Jones put it on Thursday over at National Review Online, "now is the time for recriminations." What might have seemed like a success to people using mere common sense – the release of those British sailors and marines with no loss of life, no apparent admissions of dastardly breaching of territorial waters, no overt threats, no military action that would undoubtedly have had unfortunate repercussions and might have failed, no irreparable breaches – is viewed as a humiliating defeat for Great Britain, the EU, the U.N., the United States and civilization in general.

The usual suspects – although they generally refrained from writing much during the incident you can almost feel the palpable disappointment at the Weekly Standard and environs that there was no opportunity to drop bombs or unleash special forces – thought that this would have been the time to give the Islamic Republic a little whiff o’ the grape. Poor dears.

Perhaps the most visible warmonger during the crisis was former (whew!) U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who has hardly ever seen a potential war he didn’t want the United States to start. He excoriated Great Britain and Tony Blair for not imposing "real pain, real economic sanctions." A week ago he was fulminating that Tony Blair’s week-kneed and "inept" approach wasn’t working.

A few days later the hostages were freed.

Newt Gingrich advocated military retaliation aimed at crippling Iran’s oil production capacity. If the U.S. were so civilized as to force the Iranians to "go back to walking and using oxen to pull carts," he speculated, maybe they would overthrow the government. Ah, the joys of Leninist conservatism!

Arthur Herman, author of a book on the British navy during the glory days of empire, waxed rhapsodically that "The opportunity is to face down the mullahs and shake their regime to its foundations – perhaps even bring it crashing to the ground." He argued that "Iran is everywhere vulnerable to air and naval attack. With U.S. help, even today’s much reduced British Navy could quickly close down the Hormuz Straits to Iranian ships – cutting off that country’s vital supply of imported gasoline – as well as bombing its refineries. Such a campaign, military experts agree, would bring Iran to a halt in two weeks."

That must be some mighty tasty Kool-Aid.

The weeping really began in earnest after the resolution of the crisis, however. National Review, ever predictable, warned portentously that "into that humanitarian feeling irrupts the darker realization that their [UK sailors and marines] good fortune comes at an unacceptable price. Unless Britain and her allies act quickly and cleverly to show that they are, appearances notwithstanding, powers to be reckoned with, a great many lives will be at risk for a long time to come."

We pause to celebrate the continuance of the lives of those brave servicemen and women for whom we stoutly and repeatedly express our undying support – and turn immediately to pounding the war drums so as to put more of them in mortal peril.

Charles Krauthammer is predictably and congenitally sour: "You would think that maintaining international order means, at least, challenging acts of piracy. No challenge here. Instead, a quiet capitulation." Krauthammer seems especially peeved at the EU, lamenting that "as a political entity it is a farce. It remains a collection of sovereign nations with divergent interests."

Gee whiz, that ol’ debbil sovereignty getting in the way of a good collective thrashing of a rogue nation.

Now it would undoubtedly have been preferable if the Iranian regime had released the British servicepeople, who if they ventured into Iranian waters almost certainly did so inadvertently, immediately. (It’s worth noting, however, that the captain of the British mother vessel, before the kidnapping/hostage-taking, as seen on this Sky News interview, was not shy about saying that the British naval operations were undertaken at least in part for intelligence-gathering purposes.) But this outcome is preferable to what would have been increasing pressure for Britain, or perhaps even the United States, to put more pressure on the Iranian regime through military and paramilitary means.

To be sure, the incident leaves us with more questions than answers.

What was the motivation for Iranian forces to seize the British sailors and marines in the first place? Was the seizure done by a possibly overzealous local commander or ordered from the center? Does the resolution of the incident suggest a split within the Iranian regime, between hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and pragmatists, led by Ali Larijani, head of the Supreme National Security Council and representing the interests of most of the mullahs? Or did most everyone in the Iranian regime figure that prolonging the captivity would yield increasingly negative results for Iran, so the best course was to get a day or two of good propaganda out of the incident? Or are any splits merely superficial?

Sky News of the UK said its sources revealed that Qatar and Syria were instrumental in bringing about a resolution. What interest would those two countries have in common, and what leverage, if any would they have over Iran? Could Saudi Arabia, which has been increasingly active diplomatically in the region, have played a role?

For all his sometimes unpredictable and inflammatory hardline tendencies, Iranian President Ahmadinejad played the resolution of this crisis shrewdly. Whether he was pressured into releasing the hostages or not, he played the occasion beautifully, referring to the release as a "gift" to the British people while insisting that Iran had been deeply wronged by an incursion into territorial waters and even managing to work Muhammad and Easter into the announcement.

As a senior former diplomat whose current organization doesn’t necessarily want to be seen as contributing to this Website told me, whatever the truth of the matter, "he made Iran sound like the civilized party in this affair."

Despite recriminations, and general scolding that the British Lion showed itself to be a pussycat, I would argue Great Britain played things just about right, consistently denying it had done anything wrong, refusing in public to negotiate, exercising patience rather than hurling threats, and (probably) arranging for the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been captured in Iraq.

There may be a lesson here. Vali Nasr of the Naval Postgraduate School and Ray Takeyh, author of The Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, argued in the New York Times, "the Islamic Republic of Iran sent its adversaries a pointed message: just as Iran will meet confrontation with confrontation, it will respond to what it perceives as flexibility with pragmatism. This message is worth heeding as the United States and Iran seem to be moving inexorably toward conflict."

Now is a good time to step back and think seriously about our priorities in the region. It is hardly my preference, but it’s a reasonably good bet that the United States is likely to be a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf and Iran will inevitably be a regional power. We need to start talking to determine how those interests, some of which will coincide and some of which will conflict, can be worked through without warfare or nuclear weapons.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).