Politics & Policy

Houses of Straw

The EU's delusions about the sufficiency of "soft" power are embarrassingly revealed.

It’s completely outrageous for any nation to go out and arrest the servicemen of another nation in waters that don’t belong to them.” So spoke Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, concerning the present Anglo-Iranian crisis over captured British soldiers. But if the attack was “outrageous,” it was apparently not quite outrageous enough for anything to have been done about it yet.

Sir Alan elaborated on British rules of engagement by stressing they are “very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting … Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were, in effect, able to be captured and taken away.”

One might suggest, not necessarily “sinking everything in sight,” but at least shooting back at a few of the people trying to kidnap Britain’s uniformed soldiers. But the view, apparently, is that stepping back and allowing some chaps to be “captured and taken away” is to be preferred to “roaring into action and sinking everything in sight.” The latter is more or less what Nelson did at the battle of the Nile, when he nearly destroyed the Napoleonic fleet.

The attack coincides roughly with Iran’s announcement that it will end its cooperation with U.N. non-proliferation efforts. That announcement was in reaction to a unanimous vote to begin embargoing some trade with Teheran of critical nuclear-related substances. With that move, Ahmadinejad is essentially notifying the world that Iran will go ahead and get the bomb — and let no one dare try to stop them.

If a non-nuclear Iran kidnaps foreign nationals in international waters, we can imagine what a nuclear theocracy will do. The Iranian thugocracy rightly understands that NATO will not declare the seizure of a member’s personnel an affront to the entire alliance.

Nor will the European Union send its “rapid” defense forces to insist on a return of the hostages. There is simply too much global worry about the price and availability of oil, too much regional concern over stability after Iraq, and too much national anxiety over the cost in lives and treasure that a possible confrontation would bring. Confrontation can be avoided through capitulation, and no Western nation is willing to insist that Iran adhere to any norms of behavior.

Yet the problem is not so much a postfacto “What to do?” as it is a question of why such events happened in serial fashion in the first place.

The paradox now is that, just as no European nation wishes to be seen in solidarity with the United States, so too no European force wishes to venture beyond its borders without acting in concert with the American military, whether on the ground under American air cover or at seas with a U.S. carrier group.

There are reasons along more existential lines for why Iran acts so boldly. After the end of the Cold War, most Western nations — i.e., Europe and Canada — cut their military forces to such an extent that they were essentially disarmed. The new faith was that, after a horrific twentieth century, Europeans and the West in general had finally evolved beyond the need for war.

With the demise of fascism, Nazism, and Soviet Communism, and in the new luxury of peace, the West found itself a collective desire to save money that could be better spent on entitlements, to create some distance from the United States, and to enhance international talking clubs in which mellifluent Europeans might outpoint less sophisticated others. And so three post-Cold War myths arose justify these.

First, that the past carnage had been due to misunderstanding rather than the failure of military preparedness to deter evil.

Second, that the foundations of the new house of European straw would be “soft” power. Economic leverage and political hectoring would deter mixed-up or misunderstood nations or groups from using violence. Multilateral institutions — the World Court or the United Nations — might soon make aircraft carriers and tanks superfluous.

All this was predicated on dealing with logical nations — not those countries so wretched as to have nothing left to lose, or so spiteful as to be willing to lose much in order to hurt others a little, or so crazy as to welcome the “end of days.” This has proved an unwarranted assumption. And with the Middle East flush with petrodollars, non-European militaries have bought better and more plentiful weaponry than that which is possessed by the very Western nations that invented and produced those weapons.

Third, that in the 21st century there would be no serious enemies on the world stage. Any violence that would break out would probably be due instead to either American or Israeli imperial, preemptive aggression — and both nations could be ostracized or humiliated by European shunning and moral censure. The more Europeans could appear to the world as demonizing, even restraining, Washington and Tel Aviv, the more credibility abroad would accrue to their notion of multilateral diplomacy.

But even the European Union could not quite change human nature, and thus could not outlaw the entirely human business of war. There were older laws at play — laws so much more deeply rooted than the latest generation’s faddish notions of conflict resolution. Like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, which would work only against the liberal British, and never against a Hitler or a Stalin, so too the Europeans’ moral posturing seemed to affect only the Americans, who singularly valued the respect of such civilized moralists.

Now we are in the seventh year of a new century, and even after the wake-up call on 9/11, Westerners are still relearning each day that the world is a dangerous place. When violence comes to downtown Madrid, the well-meaning Spanish chose to pull out of Iraq — only to uncover more serial terrorist cells intent on killing more Spaniards.

To get their captured journalists freed, Italians paid Islamists bribes — and then found more Italians captured. When Germany, Britain, and France parleyed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the “direct talks” that we in the states yearn for) to try to get Iran to cease its plans for nuclear proliferation, he politely ignored the “EU3.” The European Union is upset that Russian agents murder troublemakers inside the EU’s borders, and so registers its displeasure with the Cheshire Vladimir Putin.

The latest Iranian kidnapping of British sailors came after British promises to leave Iraq, and after the British humiliation of 2004, when eight hostages were begged back. Apparently the Iranians have figured either that London would do little if they captured more British subjects or that the navy of Lord Nelson and Admiral Jellico couldn’t stop them if it wanted to.

“London,” of course, is a misnomer, since the Blair government is an accurate reflection of attitudes widely held in both Britain and Europe. These attitudes have already been voiced by the public: this is understandable payback for the arrest of Iranian agents inside Iraq; this is what happens when you ally with the United States; this is what happens when the United States ceases talking with Iran.

The rationalizations are limitless, but essential, since no one in Europe — again, understandably — wishes a confrontation that might require a cessation of lucrative trade with Iran, or an embarrassing military engagement without sufficient assets, or any overt allegiance with the United States. Pundits talk of a military option, but there really is none, since neither Britain nor Europe at large possesses a military.

What does the future hold if Europe does not rearm and make it clear that attacks on Europeans and threats to the current globalized order have repercussions?

If Europeans recoil from a few Taliban hoodlums or Iranian jihadists, new mega-powers like nuclear India and China will simply ignore European protestations as the ankle-biting of tired moralists. Indeed, they do so already.

Why put European ships or planes outside of European territorial waters when that will only guarantee a crisis in which Europeans are kidnapped and held as hostages or used as bargaining chips to force political concessions?

Europe is just one major terrorist operation away from a disgrace that will not merely discredit the EU, but will do so to such a degree as to endanger its citizenry and interests worldwide and their very safety at home. Islamists must assume that an attack on a European icon — Big Ben, the Vatican, or the Eiffel Tower — could be pulled off with relative impunity and ipso facto shatter European confidence and influence. Each day that the Iranians renege on their promises to release the hostages, and then proceed to parade their captives, earning another “unacceptable” from embarrassed British officials, a little bit more of the prestige of the United Kingdom is chipped away.

In the future, smaller nations in dangerous neighborhoods must accept that in their crises ahead, their only salvation, even after the acrimonious Democratic furor over Iraq, is help from the United States.

America alone can guarantee the safety of the noble Kurds, should Turkey or Iran choose one day to invade. America alone will be willing or able to supply Israel with necessary help and weapons to ensure its survival.

Other small nations — a Greece, for example — with long records of vehement anti-Americanism should take note that the choice facing them in their rough neighborhoods is essentially solidarity with the United States or the embrace of Jimmy Carter diplomacy or Stanley Baldwin appeasement.

Quite simply, there is now no NATO, no EU, no U.N. that can or will do anything in anyone’s hour of need.

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