Politics & Policy

The British Shrug

Why is the U.K. seemingly so unable to respond forcefully to Iran?

London To understand what is now happening in the Persian Gulf, try a thought experiment. Imagine that the British ten days ago had stopped an Iranian ship in Iranian waters, took its sailors prisoners, paraded them on television offering apologies for their trespassing, and was now demanding an apology from the Iranian government itself for breaking international law.

Sure, it couldn’t happen. But suppose that it had happened.

Condemnations would pour from the United Nations and other international bodies. Britain’s allies in Europe and the U.S. would publicly press for the release of the Iranians. Human rights bodies would point out that Britain’s actions were in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. And other NGOs would attempt to drag British leaders such as Prime Minister Tony Blair before the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.

Some of these responses would originate in Britain itself. Opposition parties would propose motions of censure in Parliament. Anti-war groups would stage vast rallies in London. And the government might very well fall.

All these consequences are readily predictable. But what would Iran do?

Publicly Iran would shout defiance. It would use all the usual avenues of diplomatic protest to demand the return of its sailors. It might ask its terrorist allies in Iraq and elsewhere to launch bombing attacks on British institutions and personnel. And it would tell its captured sons and daughters through the media that they had been given a heaven-sent opportunity to embrace martyrdom.

Privately it might decide to avoid antagonizing Britain in future — and to antagonize, say, Spain instead. But it would not negotiate, still less compromise, with an adversary so friendless and universally condemned.

Let us now return to the real world in which Iran has seized British sailors and marines against every known international law. My distinguished columnar colleague, Mark Steyn, has already pointed to the fact that Britain is at least as isolated as Iran on this issue.

The U.N. refused to “deplore” the seizing of hostages in an act of piracy. Britain’s European allies have so far failed to impose the economic sanctions that might give Iran serious cause to retreat. From the great stage-army of human rights groups, NGOs, and international lawyers there has emerged a resounding tinkle. And the hard-headed “realist” school of strategic thought has even suggested that Britain made a mistake in complaining to the U.N. since its complaint complicated U.N. diplomacy (that was going nowhere) over Iran’s nuclear program.

In short, all of the pressures from “the international community” have been to urge Britain to show restraint, even in its conducting its diplomacy, rather than to condemn Iran for criminal actions. This again confirms the old saw that impartial umpires tend to favor the more unreasonable party in any international dispute.

“Realists” respond by arguing that there are two parties in Tehran, too — and that British restraint will help the “moderates” overcome the hard-line Islamic revolutionaries to reach a compromise. This is an old argument:  Kremlin-watchers used to warn that a hard-line response to Stalin would weaken him in debates with “extremists” in the Politburo. And it is no more plausible in the case of the Iranian government in which, as Raul Marc Gerecht points out in the current Weekly Standard, the revolutionary true-believers seem to be in complete control.

Still, let us conduct a second thought experiment. Let us overcome our natural skepticism and assume that evenly balanced moderates and revolutionaries are now debating in Tehran over whether to release the hostages or to keep them as long as possible to humiliate London. Why would this mean that the British should show restraint?

To be sure, restraint might help the moderates to argue that Blair and Co. are decent chaps with whom better relations are possible. Or it might empower the revolutionaries to maintain that they are wimps who can be humiliated indefinitely with impunity. Which sounds more like the behavior of the Iranian government since 1979?

“Restraint” sends a message of weakness in any event. It would be more prudent of Britain to calculate that any Iranian government — whatever its disposition — should be made to fear punishment for seizing British troops unlawfully. At this point, however, the only way of instilling such fear is actually to punish Iran — and that seems very far from the minds of both the British government and the British people.

One of the oddities of the present mood in London is how little anger and indignation there is about the crisis. Americans seem to be more indignant on Britain’s behalf than the British are for themselves.

Almost alone among allies the U.S. has strongly backed London against Iran — which has prompted some columnists here to complain that they don’t want the support of a war-monger like Bush.

Obviously one element in this public mood is a guilty hostility to the Iraq war, which is blamed on Bush and Blair. A deeper and perhaps more permanent cause, however, is the Brits are developing a quasi-pacifist European sensibility on military affairs. They are “entering Europe” psychologically as well as economically. That puts them at a disadvantage in conflict with a revolutionary Iran:


Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight.

But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.

If that is so, a number of oddities about the crisis become much clearer:  the Royal Navy’s feeble rules of engagement which in effect say “Hey, you can’t do that — someone might get killed”; the willingness of the sailors to repeat Iranian propaganda — they apparently received no training in resisting pressure in captivity; the assumption that the sole aim of diplomacy must be to free the captives at almost any cost; the widespread belief that Britain has no options against a poorer and less powerful nation like Iran; and the overriding sense of fatalism that colors both government policy and press comment in the British capital.

If these beliefs were true, that would be some excuse — but they are false. As Newt Gingrich has pointed out, Iran’s sole refinery could be attacked. Its ports could be blockaded or mined. Its exports blocked.

And though the lives of the hostages are important, the overriding aim of policy should be to protect the many more lives of those future hostages who will suffer and die if London sends out the message that its people can be seized with impunity.

That this might happen — with the half-hearted consent of the British people — is the result of two policies pursued by the Blair government over many years:  the running down of Britain’s armed forces and the deliberate official discouragement of British patriotism in favor of the European Union and international institutions.

A week ago Prime Minister Tony Blair was discussing the Falklands War which, through the agency of some ironical fairy, is enjoying its 25th anniversary at the moment. Blair remarked that Mrs. Thatcher had then made the right decision to respond to Argentina’s seizure of the British islands by sending a naval task force to recover them. He would do the same thing himself in like circumstances. Two days later the British sailors and marines were seized.

God is not mocked. Neither are Clio and Britannia.

This first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.



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