Two thousand years ago, a Roman could wander the known world confident that he would be unmolested by local unruly elements, protected only by the statement “Civis romanus sum,” I am a Roman citizen. His confidence stemmed from a demonstrated assurance that any group that dared attack a Roman would trigger a response in the form of a Roman legion, which would deal swift and brutal justice. Juxtapose this image of a previous world-spanning hegemon with the image of ten American Sailors kneeling on the deck of their own vessel with their hands clasped together over their heads. It is an image of indignity and failure that is accompanied by the smell of rotting power.
We could spend time examining the mistakes made by the crew that created the circumstances leading to capture, and as a former practitioner of maritime navigation, I can tell you that there were many; or we could talk about why the Navy is so small that we are sending riverine boats into the Arabian Gulf. But such discussions miss the point. When a craft is lost at sea and wanders into foreign territorial waters, it is generally provided with assistance and sent on its way. This is even truer when the craft belongs to a superpower, but recent events had left Iran feeling emboldened enough to take custody of U.S. Navy boats and forcibly retain their crew, forcing a female Sailor to cover herself, in violation of her human rights, and coercing a commissioned naval officer to confess his mistake and apologize on camera.
Obama’s foreign policy, from its earliest bows to foreign leaders to its ‘reset’ with Russia and opening of Iran and Cuba, has been all about presenting a more modest America.
This series of events is a far cry from an earlier similar incident. In May 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist force not totally dissimilar from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, captured the U.S.-flagged merchant vessel Mayaguez on the premise that it had violated Cambodia’s territorial waters. In response, the president, Gerald R. Ford, and his deputy national-security adviser, Air Force Major General Brent Scowcroft — no defense firebrands, to be sure — ordered elements of the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps to bomb targets near where the Mayaguez was being held and insert troops to recover its crew from their captives. When Cambodia realized the magnitude of its mistake in taking on a superpower, it quickly returned the crew to the Mayaguez and all but pushed the ship out of port.
President Obama entered office riding a wave that rejected American exceptionalism and aggressive military operations. After eight years in Afghanistan and Iraq, many on the left felt that it was the United States itself, with its aggressive, us-versus-them foreign policies, that presented the strongest threat to world peace, and the Obama foreign policy, from its earliest bows to foreign leaders to its “reset” with Russia and opening of Iran and Cuba, has been all about presenting a more modest America. The seriously flawed negotiations with Iran to cease the development of nuclear weapons is just the latest and perhaps most egregious example of the effort to “normalize” the United States’ role in the world.
This is where we find ourselves today, kneeling on the world’s stage, with our hands clasped over our heads, all the while trying to convince ourselves that this new position demonstrates our strength and earns respect. Civis americanus sum, I am an American citizen. Let the molesting begin.
— Jerry Hendrix is a retired Navy Captain, former director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments program at the Center for a New American Security.