Three Cheers For Diplomacy

Controversy has broken out in the media, particularly in the U.K. and the U.S., over the behaviour, while captive, of the British naval personnel who were recently seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and subsequently detained by Iran's governing authorities. Their effusive expressions of thanks to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the time of their release, and the apologies they offered for having intruded on what they then affected to recognize as "Iranian" waters, have generated in some quarters a measure of unease. Have we in the West, the question goes, somehow lost the hallowed tradition of the "stiff upper lip" - a tradition popularly associated most of all with the response under pressure of the reputedly stoical British?

Even in Canada, an outraged letter-writer in the National Post went so far as to assert that the 15 sailors "should be charged for treason by Britain." "Whatever happened," he asked, "to captured soldiers only giving their 'name, rank and serial number'? ... Folding like a deck of cards under pressure is not what soldiers are trained and paid to do."

There has also been some vigorous discussion of the U.K. government's decision to allow the sailors to market their stories to the British press - in effect, to sell their tales for hard cash.

This kind of commentary may be understandable, but it neglects the obvious possibility that the sailors were acting under orders, or at least in accordance with general guidelines imparted to them during the course of their training. Doug Saunders reported in the Globe and Mail on Friday, April 6, that British authorities had "noted that British military personnel are trained to submit to their captors in order to maintain their safety if there is no chance of escape." He went on to quote Sir Jock Stirrup, the British Chief of Defence Staff, in asserting that the sailors "did exactly as they should have done, from start to finish in this entire episode, and we are extremely proud of them."

The critics also forget one obviously relevant point, which is that Britain is not at war with Iran. The Iranian government is certainly regarded - fairly or not - as something of a pariah in the West, and particularly in Washington. It is also the target of economic sanctions under U.N. Security Council resolutions, in the (probably futile) hope that these will encourage it to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Thus far, however, no war has been declared, and with one or two exceptions (as in the case of the ill-fated U.S. attempt to rescue American diplomats after they had been seized by militant Iranian students in 1979), overt military operations have been carefully avoided by both sides.

All that being so, the captured British sailors could hardly be regarded as prisoners of war, and presumably they did not themselves believe that they were. The public interest here (on all sides) lies not with escalating such otherwise marginal incidents, but with de-escalating them - a process that can hardly be served by inessential displays of pugnacity.

The incidents themselves are obviously irritating. As David Bercuson reminded us in the Globe and Mail on April 11, this particular example amounts to a re-play of a very similar episode in June 2004, when the Revolutionary Guard seized three Royal Navy patrol boats and detained eight sailors and six marines for several days. It's the kind of thing that can reap propaganda rewards for Iran among constituencies of interest to it in the Middle East and elsewhere. But it's hardly a casus bellum, and the most appropriate response is not immediate military retaliation, but preparatory operational measures designed to ensure that the problem will not recur in the future.

Presumably it is this thought (together with the desire to avoid needless casualties) that underlies the training that British officers insist their sailors have received.

Whether the sailors should be allowed to peddle their accounts of their experiences to the media is a more difficult and complicated matter. The fact that the issue has arisen at all, as Paul Schneidereit noted in an article in the Halifax-based Chronicle Herald on April 10, is not very surprising in the British context, where it has become a common Fleet Street routine.

There are all sorts of reasons for arguing that the practice is a disreputable one, for which the media themselves doubtless deserve rebuke. But given that the habit is already deeply imbedded in the culture of the less admirable components of the British press (in matters of this kind, they truly have no peer), it is not entirely clear that military personnel, within the limits set by security requirements, should be held to a higher standard than the one commonly maintained by their civilian counterparts.

In Canada, it is even conceivable that military lawyers would be inclined to advise their superiors that denying such marketing opportunities to uniformed men and women could be open on various Charter-based grounds to a successful challenge in the courts. Since the United Kingdom is not bound by a comparable constitutional device, it may be free of this sort of legal constraint, but even so, it is not clear that military personnel should be limited on a matter of this kind in ways that civilians are not.

Uniformed personnel in all ranks, moreover, have had a long history of writing their memoirs or providing other post facto money-making accounts of their career experiences, often with the help of well-paid ghost-writers. These frequently constitute invaluable additions to the public record, for which historians, educators, political analysts, accountability advocates and others have good reason to be immensely grateful. It is not obvious that any significant difference of principle is involved in the present case - subject, again, to the usual security requirements.

There may also underlie the British decision on this a more pragmatic consideration, which is that the marketing process will encourage wider publication and dissemination of the sailors' accounts of what they have experienced, and thereby help in some quarters to countervail the short-term Iranian propaganda advantage.

As interesting as these sorts of questions are, however, their significance pales before the more important underlying implication of much of the recent critical commentary. This is particularly true of some of the chatter that can be heard on the talk shows of right-wing American television channels, echoes of which can be found in language emanating from sources sympathetic to the Bush administration.

Perhaps the most astounding manifestation of a bull of this sort stampeding into a china shop came from John Bolton, the recent American Ambassador to the United Nations, who is reported to have observed on British television that Whitehall's response to the captive sailors incident - which was to resolve it by means Canadians would describe as "quiet diplomacy" - was "pathetic."

It might be tempting for Canadians to dismiss this sort of behaviour as another routine display of excess by an American "neo-con" in muscular heat. The careful exercise of military power in the right hands can sometimes produce a lot of good. But the power itself is a dangerous intoxicant, and there is no originality in the thought that it can lead political leaders who are convinced they are right to deploy it - or threaten to deploy it - in ways that are too crude by half. The effects in such cases are almost invariably counterproductive, and the paradox of power then plays itself out. The powerful are shown to be weak. The weak are shown to be strong. Peasants in the rice-paddies of Vietnam defeat the military establishments of two great empires in a row - the French and the American - with hardly a break between engagements.

Canada is not, of course, a serious player in this kind of game - although it sometimes talks of its own "soft power" in comparably misguided terms. But some of its commentators are given all the same to cheering on from the sidelines the more belligerent of the forces that reside among the citizens of its great power allies, thereby giving unintended encouragement to the making of great mistakes.

An example of the genre can be found in David Warren's column entitled "We are men of straw", which appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on April 7. In it, he took issue with British authorities for "negotiating with the revolutionary Iranians to get their 15 sailors back." He went on to observe that they were also negotiating with Hamas "in the hope of freeing a BBC journalist who went missing in Gaza nearly a month ago," that British police were "still negotiating with radical members of the Muslim community, in the hope of averting violence and finding more suspects and evidence in light of charges just brought against three alleged conspirators in the London bombings of July 7, 2005," and so on.

Warren concedes in reference to the captured sailors that they were probably "under orders not to offer resistance if the Iranians tried to detain them illegally - but instead, to negotiate." But he finds the negotiating disposition, taken as a whole, very troubling. An American military source has told him that "American or Australian personnel would be under contrary orders. Orders to engage in such circumstances." It breaks his heart "to see the Royal Navy reduced to such pathetic and squalid groveling; to see the speed with which first the female sailor and then several of the men were persuaded to pose for Iranian propaganda." The display is regarded as a far cry from the performance in the Falkland Islands campaign under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The problem, in Warren's view, is that Prime Minister Tony Blair, who "probably knows that negotiations with implacable enemies are, in the longer run - but usually in the shortest run, too - utterly counterproductive," "lacks the spine of Mrs. Thatcher." He was thus unwilling to "do what had to be done" because it "would have meant publicly risking the lives of 15 sailors, and all the media fallout that would come of it."

But it is not at all clear here what it was that "had to be done," apart from pressing for yet another escalation of economic sanctions against Iran. The implication seems to be that there should have been a much more vigorous verbal response in public, presumably supported by ostentatious displays of sabre-rattling.

Sadly, the dispute with Iran may yet come to this, and there can be no doubt that military planners in Washington and elsewhere have been examining their options. Presumably, however, it would be much more preferable to resolve the problem by non-martial means. This is particularly the case in the present context, in which there are at least a few troubling ambiguities.

One of them is that there appears to be disagreement between the Iranians and others over the precise location of the boundary line between Iranian and Iraqi waters. This is not the place in which to consider the respective merits of the competing claims, but Canadians should be among the first to understand that disputes over such matters can easily arise, and that rival players can, and will, bring conflicting criteria to bear in support of their interests. Until they agree, entitlements are defined through the eyes of the beholder.

Another such ambiguity derives from the role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The most recalcitrant adversaries of Iran assume that the Guard is ultimately an instrument of the government, even if it displays para-statal characteristics, and that it was therefore acting on central authority and not on its own initiative. Its para-statal cover, on this view, is a cover of convenience, which gives Tehran what the Americans (when up to comparable mischief) like to call "deniability." Other commentators, however, seem to be much less sure that governance in Iran is so rationally and coherently orchestrated as the "cover of convenience" interpretation would suggest. I can offer no informed opinion on this matter, except to observe that the evolution of events as we know them can be made to fit with either one of these two views of how the Iranian system actually operated in this particular instance.

However these and other ambiguities are assessed, it is difficult, in any case, to avoid the conclusion, once again, that the captive-sailors incident cannot sensibly be regarded as a casus bellum, and that initiating a warlike response would have been (a) unwarranted, and (b) counterproductive (in both the short and the long term).

However much we may disapprove of the Iranian government and its policies, moreover, one of the inconveniences that we must simply accept is that, for various reasons, it is a force to be reckoned with. It has a population of just under 70 million. It is located in a geopolitically significant position. It sits on a lot of oil. And there are important international actors who do not agree with the view that it can be (or should be) brought to heel by military means, including a few who think that the way it does its politics is in accord with the preferences of God, as well as being perfectly understandable in the light of its twentieth-century historical experience.

All of this is tiresome, no doubt, but it does suggest that responding to the challenges that Iran poses to western interests may require a more nuanced array of responses than the ones that appear to be preferred by the likes of John Bolton.

How many demonstrations of the limitations of muscularity (Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, Iraq, perhaps Afghanistan, and lots of others on a smaller scale) must we experience before the custodians of great military power (and the commentators who like to think well of them) begin to act less like quarrelling school boys, and more like professionals?

British diplomacy, in this case, was certainly "professional."

It deserves cheers, not brickbats.