- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

Watching Tottenham Hotspur fans taking on the Spanish constabulary at a European soccer match the other night, I found myself idly speculating what might have happened had those Iranian kidnappers made the mistake of seizing 15 hardboiled football yobs who hadn’t got the Blair memo about not escalating.

Instead the mullahs were fortunate enough to take hostage 15 Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines. Which were which was hard to say upon their release. The Queen’s Navee had been demobbed. The token gal was dressed as an Islamic woman and the 14 men had been kitted out in Ahmadinejad leisurewear, not just a ghastly fashion faux pas but a breach of the increasingly one-way Geneva Conventions. But they smiled and they waved. Wave, Britannia, Britannia, waive the rules. The Associated Press reported the story as follows: “Analysis: Hope for more Iran compromises.”

Well, if by “compromise” you mean Tehran didn’t put them up for a show trial and behead them, you might have a point. With this encouraging development, we might persuade them to wipe only half of Israel off the map, or even nuke some sparsely occupied corner of the Yukon instead. With the momentum of this “compromise” driving events, all manner of diplomatic triumphs are possible.

Tony Blair was at pains to point out that the hostages were released “without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature.” But he is missing (or artfully sidestepping) the point: Tehran didn’t want a deal. It wanted the humbling of the Great Satan’s principal ally. And it got it. Very easily. And it paid no price for it. And it has tested in useful ways the empty pretensions of the United Nations, the European Union and also NATO, whose second-largest fleet is now a laughingstock in a part of the world where it helps to be taken seriously.

I’m always bemused by the correspondence I get from readers arguing there’s more going on than meets the eye — that the British and Americans wanted to keep things cool this last week because it’s a massive head fake to distract attention from all kinds of covert activities already under way to overthrow Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syria’s Bashar Assad, and a bunch of other fellows.

Even if it were true (which it’s not) that Valerie Plame’s crack commando units are rappeling down the walls of every presidential palace from Sudan to North Korea, in a media age what matters is not only what’s going on behind the scenes but the scenes themselves. And scenes of British servicemen fawning on Mr. Ahmadinejad along with scenes of a headscarved Nancy Pelosi doing the same to Bashar Assad project a consistent message. Even if there is more going on than meets the eye, what meets the eye is so profoundly damaging to the credibility of great nations that no amount of lethal special ops could compensate for it.

Power is only as great as the perception of power. The Iranians understand they can’t beat America or Britain in tank battles or air strikes, so they choose other battlefields on which to hit them. That’s why the behavior of the captives gives great cause for concern: There’s no point training guys to be tough fighting men of the Royal Marines when you’re in a bloody little scrap in Sierra Leone (as they were a couple of years ago) if you allow them to crumple on TV in front of the entire world.

So in 2007 the men of the Royal Navy can be kidnapped and “the strong arm of England” (in Lord Palmerston’s phrase) goes all limp-wristed and threatens to go to the U.N. and talk about drafting a Security Council resolution.

Backstage, meanwhile, deals are done: an Iranian “diplomat” (a k a Mister Terror Kingpin) suddenly resurfaces in Tehran after having been reported in U.S. detention — his release purely coincidental, we’re told. But it’s the kind of coincidence that ensures more of your men will be kidnapped and ransomed in the years ahead. And, just to remind the world who makes the rules, six more British subjects were killed in southern Iraq even while the hostages were released. The Iranians have exposed America’s strongest ally as the soft underbelly of the Great Satan.

The most noticeable feature of the last two weeks has been the massive shrug by the British public. Some observers attributed this to the unpopularity of the Iraq war: those nice mullahs wouldn’t be pulling this stuff if Mr. Blair hadn’t got mixed up with that crazy Texas moron. But it seems to me a more profound malaise has gripped them — the enervating fatalism of too many people in what is still a semi-serious nation with one of the world’s biggest militaries up against an insignificant basket-case. The traditional British position was deftly summed up in the chorus of an old music-hall song:

We don’t want to fight but, by jingo, if we do

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.

Or, to modify Elvis, they weren’t looking for trouble but, if you looked right in their face, they would give you some. In theory, they still have the ships, the men and the money, but something intangible has been lost. “Jingoism” is not merely a mindless swagger but a kind of assumed national confidence of which the fleet and the sailors and the cash are merely the tangible embodiment. Take away the confidence, and the ships and men and money avail you nought.

You want a diplomatic solution? Fine. But, if you believe (as Europe and half America does) in “soft power,” it’s important to remember it depends on the world’s belief you’re willing to use that power. Looking at the reaction to this incident by the U.S., EU, U.N. et al., Iran will conclude that the transnational consensus will never muster the will to constrain its nuclear ambitions.

Europeans and more and more Americans believe they can live in a world with all the benefits of global prosperity and no messy obligations necessary to maintain it. And so they cruise around war zones like floating nongovernmental organizations. Iran called their bluff, and televised it to the world.

In the end, every great power is as great as its credibility, and the only consolation after these last two weeks is that Britain doesn’t have much more left to lose.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005


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