Standard Nautical Malpractice

Analysis: The deep shame of our response to Iran’s treatment of American sailors

January 15, 2016

Let’s dispatch with the silliest argument I encountered this week about the treatment of American sailors by Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, known widely as the IRGC: that, had the situation been reversed, we would have done basically the same thing to them. This is simply false. We are not at war with Iran. A naval vessel retains its sovereign immunity even if it is suffering from engine trouble or has inadvertently crossed into another nation’s territorial waters, both of which appear to have happened this week.

So, for the record, if an Iranian boat had suffered a mechanical failure and come nonthreateningly into American waters, accompanied by another Iranian vessel attempting to render aid, we would not have: stripped the Iranians of their gear, at gunpoint, and forced them to their knees; made a video of same, for use as propaganda; ransacked their property, possibly including sensitive communications gear; forced them to wear clothing that suited our religious sensibilities; detained them overnight, while interrogating members of the crew on camera; and finally released edited footage in an effort at humiliation.

None of this was "standard nautical practice," as Vice President Joe Biden claimed. Nor was it something for which we should thank the government of Iran, as Secretary of State Kerry was quick to do, while claiming that the sailors had been "well taken care of." Presumably neither man had seen the footage released by Iran when they made those remarks, but the mere fact that the sailors and their boats had been kept overnight should have been concerning enough to give them pause. Even without its more theatrical elements, the detention alone was objectively a hostile act, despite surreal protests to the contrary from the U.S. government.

But for those brief moments between the release of the sailors and the release of the footage, the collective message of the Obama administration and its apologists was "never mind!" Writing in the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner mocked those who had "overreacted" and flown "off the handle," in a piece titled, "Anatomy of a moment in macho foreign policy posturing." His editors originally illustrated that piece with an Iranian propaganda photo of the detained sailors, who had clearly had their gear and apparently even their boots seized.

Drezner’s colleague, Ishaan Tharoor, described reaction to the incident as a "freak out." The New York Times reported that the release of the sailors was being "hailed by the Obama administration as an unintended benefit of the new diplomatic relationship" with Iran, a point echoed by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who described the episode as "an unprecedented victory for diplomacy."

Feeling perturbed or offended that American sailors have been held overnight by force is no longer an acceptable response—at least according to the administration and its bien pensant cheerleaders. One could sense their exasperation at what they seemed to feel was a counterproductive and emotional nationalism—the very sort of "macho" attitude that gets us into trouble in the first place, to borrow one of the president’s favorite formulas.

Iran’s gloating release of the propaganda footage—images that will become definitive for Barack Obama’s legacy—was a gut punch to the administration’s sense of triumph, of course. But, even after the footage was out, the White House was neither willing nor able to stop its reflexive lawyering for Iran. Asked Thursday morning if releasing film of the prisoners violated the Geneva Conventions, John Kirby, the State Department’s spokesman (and an old Navy man himself) was quick to respond, "I think it's important to remember, though, that the Geneva Convention only applies in time of war, and we're not at war with Iran."

True. So, a follow-up question: If we are not at war with them, shouldn’t American sailors in distress expect better treatment from Iran than they would hope to receive during a time of hostilities?

We are led by men who reflexively assume that America is in the wrong. We are a nation whose elites mock feeling anger at the ill treatment of servicemen risking their lives abroad. Far from considering measured or proportionate retaliation after the incident (there is, after all, the question of more than $100 billion in frozen funds on the table) our government bent over backwards to thank the Iranians for returning our sailors after illegally detaining and humiliating them.

The bad news isn’t only at the top. There are so many unanswered questions about this incident, not least regarding the uncomfortable fact of one American sailor’s on-camera apology to his captors. When I was being trained as a Marine officer in Quantico in 2008, a similar incident had just occurred wherein Iran had taken 15 British naval personnel prisoner for almost two weeks. We studied the affair and I remember having the Armed Forces Code of Conduct, which we had to memorize, stressed by my instructors—who took a dim view of the performance of the Brits.

The Code includes passages like "I will never surrender of my own free will." Those boats were sovereign American territory. Were the sailors ordered to give them up? The Code also includes the injunction to "evade answering further questions" beyond the usual name-and-rank stuff, and to "make no oral or written statements disloyal" to the serviceman’s country.

One hesitates to focus on young people who clearly found themselves in a difficult situation, responsible for one another’s lives. But difficult situations are what members of the military sign up for. What was the extent of the coercion that young man making the apology faced? (Again for the record: when there are men standing around detaining you with guns, you are being coerced.) Is the Navy training its sailors in the Code of Conduct? Is the Code of Conduct a dead letter? What is the command climate in the Persian Gulf? Seven years into the Obama administration, is the U.S. Navy in fighting shape?

It is the responsibility of Congress to look into these questions. It should permit no obfuscation from administration officials about the hostile character of Iran’s actions. It might also consider this: In any sane world, before we give them more than $100 billion in frozen funds, it is Iran that owes us an apology.