"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 Tehran 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 post facto "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.