Lessons on American Strength from Iran and the Sailors

January 27, 2016

Many critics of the Obama administration are apoplectic over Iran’s seizure of U.S. sailors who unintentionally strayed into Iranian waters off Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf where they were then stranded. No matter that the Iranians returned the sailors to the Navy unharmed, along with their patrol boats, in less than 24 hours after some high-level diplomacy initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry. For many Republicans, this is yet more evidence of President Obama’s weakness. Our enemies do not fear us anymore, Obama’s critics insist.

Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval officer and an active historian at the Center for a New American Security, recently wrote an article that typifies this critical view for National Review (“Iran’s Arrest of U.S. Sailors Reflects Obama’s Foreign-Policy Weakness”). Hendrix writes:

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.

He ties Iran’s actions directly to the efforts of a president “who entered office riding a wave that rejected American exceptionalism and aggressive military operations” to present a “more modest America.”

Rather than having Kerry telephone his counterpart in Tehran to get the sailors back peacefully and quickly — which is exactly what happened — Hendrix would have preferred to see a more forceful response:

The launching of a fully loaded air wing from the Truman in conjunction with the repositioning of the [amphibious assault ship] Kearsarge [laden with 2,000 marines] 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 …

I take a different view.

I am glad the release of these sailors was achieved in less than one day by using the phone. Had Obama followed Hendrix’s playbook, he would have dramatically increased the risk of escalation in the Gulf. Afshon Ostovar — the author of a riveting new book on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Vanguard of the Imam — and Melissa Dalton have both eloquently discussed the high potential for military escalation in the Gulf here at War on the Rocks. The Gulf is, in Ostovar’s words, a powder keg.

Had the IRGC unexpectedly found two of the Great Satan’s patrol boats in their waters, followed by the Truman launching an air wing and a ship full of marines moving toward them, Tehran reasonably could have seen this as an attack. In that position, I probably would have. Any protestations that we were doing all this because of the patrol boats would have rung of deception; a pretext for attack. What if they then defended themselves and we were suddenly at war with Iran? I know that would actually make some in Washington happy. How would another quagmire in the Middle East serve American interests and make the United States look strong?

Anytime Americans are seized against their will, it is a bad thing. However, looking at things from the perspective of the IRGC, the paranoid defenders of Iran’s Islamic revolution, it is not surprising that they would detain U.S. sailors who showed up uninvited in their territorial waters. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard would surely do the same if Iranian sailors popped up in American waters, as they should.

We should be celebrating that diplomacy was successful, just as it was in finally achieving the release of five Americans being held hostage by Iran. And yes, we should celebrate the nuclear agreement between Iran and the five powers — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States — that enabled these negotiations and conversations. The nuclear agreement did not fundamentally alter the mutual antagonism between Iran and the United States, nor should we hold out hope that it will, but the fact that an American secretary of state can now pick up the phone and reach his counterpart in Tehran for a productive conversation is a good thing.

Perhaps critics of the Obama administration should be more careful in how they make judgments of strength versus weakness. After all, if Hendrix is correct in arguing that the taking of these sailors was evidence of Obama’s lack of strength, what does this say about President Ronald Reagan, a leader widely perceived as strong and resolute, who struggled with only limited success to bring home American hostages taken by militants in Lebanon during his administration? And let’s not even get into the sordid details of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Americans have never been Romans and the Pax Americana has always been a myth. We can never expect to be safe from violence simply due to our enemy’s fear of a heavy-handed response. Indeed, some of our enemies strike at us in order to provoke a major, expensive military response. We’ve been playing and losing that game for far too long. Holding Obama or any other president to the civis romanus standard is a recipe for disappointment.


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.