National Security & Defense

Iran’s Arrest of U.S. Sailors Reflects Obama’s Foreign-Policy Weakness

Iranian news image of the U.S. Navy sailors.

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.

Defense officials were quick to point out that they were aware that the small boats had gone missing and that they dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to search for them. However, once it was determined that the boats were in Iranian custody, the on-scene commander became the secretary of state. John F. Kerry, a former Navy lieutenant himself as well as a commander of small riverine craft in Vietnam, quickly stepped in to contact the Iranian foreign minister and began negotiations to secure the crew’s release. However, as the crew and their boats left their captors behind, the Iranians could not resist one last insult and released humiliating photos and videos of the crew’s capture and confinement.

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.

These options were open to the Obama administration. The USS Truman was in the Arabian Gulf, with its embarked airwing of more than 60 aircraft, including four squadrons of FA-18 Hornets, each capable of carrying an average of 15,000 pounds of bombs. In addition, the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge was also in the area, with nearly 2,000 Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked. The launching of a fully loaded air wing from the Truman in conjunction with the repositioning of the Kearsarge would have provided the Obama administration with an opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength, diminishing Iran’s position in the Arabian Gulf and assuring allies and partners who have become suspicious of American resolve, but that was not the president’s objective.

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 — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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