The images from earlier this year are still appalling: ten American sailors, on their knees with their hands behind their head, held at gunpoint aboard a broken-down patrol boat by paramilitary forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The capture and detainment of those ten U.S. Navy sailors on January 12, 2016, came at the start of a year in which America’s foreign policy has been at a crossroads. In the State of the Union address he delivered the very next day, President Obama spoke of living in a time of extraordinary change, with the international system led by the United States under growing strain. In his speech, the president conceded that we are living in increasingly dangerous times but dismissed “all the rhetoric about . . . our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker” as “political hot air.” With humiliating footage of our captured sailors still playing on the news, however, it was hard to deny that our nation faces a number of worrisome problems.
Around the world, we see a number of threatening actors — nation-states and other groups alike — with growing capabilities and diminished regard for international laws and norms. Iran’s illegal detainment of ten U.S. sailors was only the latest malicious action by a rogue regime that continues to brazenly support terrorism, develop and test ballistic missiles, and threaten oil exports from the Gulf. ISIS remains uncontained, and from remote villages in Pakistan to the cultural capitals of Europe, extremists have been successfully plotting and executing horrific terrorist attacks. Putin has annexed Ukraine, buzzed our ships and airplanes, threatened our NATO allies, and elevated Russian submarine activity and nuclear saber-rattling to Cold War levels. In Asia, China is amassing military power and slowly but steadily securing de facto control of the nearby seas, while North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and delivery systems that can reach the United States.
Deterrence is not just about military capabilities, however. It is also a matter of credibility, and it is clear from what happened at Farsi Island that America’s reputation, too, has been significantly degraded. With the world watching, the Obama administration has failed to enforce its “red line” in Syria, stand firm against Russian or Chinese aggression, deal a decisive blow to ISIS, or negotiate a convincing nuclear deal with Iran. These actions — or lack thereof — undoubtedly helped Iran build up the confidence and gall it takes to take on American sailors. The administration’s meek response to the Farsi Island incident — thanking Iran for releasing our sailors and touting the outcome as a victory for diplomacy — can only have made matters worse.With Obama’s administration coming to an end, it will fall to his successor to rebuild America’s capabilities and credibility and restore our standing in the world. Whatever his or her other views on foreign policy, our next commander-in-chief must understand the need for America to be in a position of strength. In the interim, Congress should make it clear to Tehran and to the outgoing administration that the American people consider Iran’s actions at Farsi Island an outrageous violation of international law for which it must be held accountable. That is why I recently introduced a bill in the House condemning Iran’s behavior in the Gulf and pledging that Congress will remember what happened to our sailors as we debate legislation pertaining to Iran. With sanctions on Iran expiring this year, Congress has an opportunity to remind Tehran and other actors that their actions will have consequences, and that aggression against Americans or our allies will not go unpunished again.
— J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s fourth congressional district in the House of Representatives. He is chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower & Projection Forces Subcommittee.