From The New Criterion.
May 31, 2007.
Mr Bean, R.N.Saddened but not altogether surprised, I listened as Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, said that the 15 British hostages from H.M.S. Cornwall who had lately returned from captivity in Iran had behaved with "considerable dignity and a lot of courage." The behavior he was referring to had included allowing themselves to paraded on Iranian television as they confessed their guilt and asserted the truth of the Iranian version of their capture — thus contradicting the contentions of the Admiralty itself and of the government that had sent them to the Persian Gulf on a UN mission. But the Admiral was very forgiving about this. Presumably, he was taking seriously his responsibility to promote the self-esteem of the young sailors and marines at a moment when they must have been feeling, well, a bit fragile. I hope that Britain’s (and America’s) enemies will be as understanding as their commander obviously was and not engage in any cheap triumphs at their expense.
Oops. Too late for that. The Iranians had already had their triumph, and, as The Sunday Times recorded, "The image of British servicemen thanking Ahmadinejad for his gracious treatment and asking for forgiveness for ‘apparently’ trespassing will not be easy to erase, particularly in the Middle East." Or, "as one Iranian commentator said mockingly: ‘Britannia really doesn’t rule the waves any more.’" But the British government and defense establishment must be of the mind that sticks and stones (and, a fortiori, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades) will break their bones but names will never hurt them. Or rather, that even if names will hurt them — for did not the youngest of the hostages, 20-year-old Operator Mechanic Arthur Batchelor, cite as evidence of his mistreatment the fact that his Iranian guards had called him "Mr Bean"? — nevertheless they ought to be able to expect the world to understand that this is more to the discredit of the name-callers than it is of themselves.
We probably all remember being told something like this as children — or, if we are of a timid disposition, telling ourselves this. Some of us may also remember how irrelevant it was as a response to the savagery of life on the playground. The world stage on which the hostage crisis had been played out seems to me very much like that playground, only without any kindly parents or teachers standing by on the periphery to prevent anything really terrible from happening. Yet here were those charged with the defense of the realm publicly averring that, firm in clinging to the sense of their own virtue and honor, they disdained to concern themselves with what terrible things their enemies were able to say about them in front of everybody. Feeling good about themselves, they can also have confidence that, if their enemies decline to take them at their own valuation, then it’s the enemies’ loss. Their splendid, self-contained moral cocoon is proof against all abuse.
Readers will, I hope, pardon me for repeating them, but the words that give perfect expression to the diplomatic fallacy of which the Admiral was guilty were pronounced by our very own Bill Clinton. In a speech last year, the former President said that "Anytime somebody said in my presidency, ‘If you don’t do this, people will think you’re weak,’ I always asked the same question for eight years: ‘Can we kill ‘em tomorrow?’ If we can kill ‘em tomorrow, then we’re not weak." Here is an example of Clintonesque rhetorical legerdemain to rival "It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is," as he makes the silent transition from how he or any elected leader of his country appears to others ("people will think you’re weak") to how the country itself ("we") — or perhaps just himself and his imaginary interlocutor, who must have been swayed by the force of his argument — may allow themselves to suppose things are in reality ("we’re not weak"). Never mind that the point he set up to make was about what people thought. Might they go on thinking you’re weak even if you (or even "we") are not? Doesn’t this matter too, whatever may be the reality?
More importantly, even if you’re not weak in reality but you remain unwilling to use your strength — since, for President Clinton at any rate, tomorrow never came except on a couple of occasions when he’d fire off the odd cruise missile at nothing in particular — isn’t that tantamount to weakness? Isn’t it, at the least, sure to be seen as weakness and therefore to enter into the calculations of potential enemies as to what they can hope to get away with in attacking or otherwise provoking you? As specious arguments go, this one takes a lot of beating, yet its plausibility has apparently survived the string of terrorist outrages unresponded to by the Clinton administration, with its unshakable confidence in its own inner but unusable strength, which culminated in the atrocities of September 11th, 2001. This is because, I think, the idea of having to answer only to one’s inward moral and honorable tribunals appeals so strongly to the prejudices of the baby-boomers who, like Mr Clinton, came of age when the remaining props of the Western honor culture were giving way — and who were themselves giving them a swift kick at the time.
For those whose formative years were spent singing "Give Peace a Chance" and congratulating themselves on the high-mindedness that forbade them to risk their lives in Vietnam simply cannot bear to face the fact that, in spite of all the moral progress that they see as having been made in their lifetime — for instance, in the diminishment and marginalization of racism and other forms of discrimination and intolerance — when it comes to the uses of state-sponsored violence, we are still living in the Hobbesian world of the unsupervised playground where the only way to prevent your enemy from attacking you is to make him afraid of you. It’s just so primitive! We of Mr Clinton’s generation are also inclined to scorn appearances, including the appearance of strength in our dealings with foreign threats, because it is almost an article of faith with us that the only thing appearances are good for is being seen through.
We and those who have come after us have been trained up in the pride of intellect automatically to separate "reality" from appearance. And so thoroughly have we assimilated the lesson that we imagine our enemies will be as ready as we are to assume that the appearance of weakness only hides the reality of strength. Or, if not, it doesn’t matter anyway, as this "reality" is an unfailing intellectual refuge for us, whatever might be its status as a practical matter, or in its ability to deter aggression. In the same way, we obsess about who was right about Iraq before the invasion not only because there are certain well-known ways in which the Bush administration was wrong about it but also because being right in our own eyes is more important to us than being respected or feared in the eyes of our enemies. The idea that mere appearance could be so important as to have its own reality in war and diplomacy is anathema to us.
Perhaps this is because, having grown up in the supposedly "conformist" 1950s, we have never quite got over being pleased with ourselves for not caring — as we suppose — "what people think" of us. But in practice, this amounts to political solipsism, and solipsism is, in so many ways, the credo of my generation. Let the terrorists think we’re weak! Let the whole world think we’re weak! Let us even, for all practical purposes, be weak! We have the warm certitude of our own opinion of our "real" strength to sustain us and we don’t care who knows it. Like Bill Clinton, Sir Jonathon Band is daring us to deny him what he obviously sees as his right to manufacture his own reality. What those sailors and marines did might have looked like craven submission in the face of enemy threats, but we who are the Admiral’s fellow scorners of appearance must be willing to believe that at some level of hidden but discoverable reality, their apparent fear and weakness betokened an actual firmness and honorability.
That he could rely on many, if not most people, to join him in this is of course partly owing to the sacredness of victimhood which our media culture has long insisted on. How dare anyone criticize those who were terrified and in fear for their lives? Would not any such critic be thus foolishly and vaingloriously announcing to the world that he would have behaved differently and heroically displayed public defiance to his captors? Actually, he’s not. He could be a coward himself without denying, solipsistically, that any such thing as cowardice existed if he didn’t choose to recognize it as such, or asserting that a given instance of it should be re-interpreted as an instance of bravery. But it’s perfectly true that there seem to be few such people in the world anymore. Almost anything that can be done can be justified in terms of some inner, solipsistic imperative, so why, having done any of the things which can be so justified, would you not justify it, thereby admitting to what, as defined by some merely external and probably archaic standard, constitutes immoral or dishonorable behavior?
The media’s reverence for victims was also responsible for the British Ministry of Defence’s waiving of the usual rules against serving members of the armed forces selling their stories to the media — at least until a public outcry forced a ministerial climbdown and a re-institution of the ban. "Serving personnel are not allowed to enter into financial arrangements with media organisations," said the MoD in a public statement. "However, in exceptional circumstances such as the award of a Victoria Cross or events such as those in recent days, permission can be granted by commanding officers and the MoD." Now there’s a solipsistic juxtaposition of almost Clintonian exquisiteness: "the award of a Victoria Cross" — Britain’s highest decoration for courage under fire — "or events such as those in recent days." That the culture at large has grown unable to distinguish anymore between a hero and a celebrity is perhaps not surprising, but that the services themselves — or at least their political masters — suffer from a similar inability is news indeed.
Nor were at least to of the courageous and dignified captives slow to recognize that their captor, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, deserved the thanks they had given him for having presented them with what amounted to a ticket to wealth and celebrity status. The one woman among them, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, was said to have sold her story to the British ITV network and the tabloid newspaper, The Sun, for perhaps as much as £150,000, or nearly $300,000. "A source at the MoD said it involved a ‘life-changing sum’," the Telegraph reported. Like our own Jessica Lynch, Mrs Turney, who is the mother of a three year old daughter, obviously owed her greater celebrity and therefore media marketability to her sex. The prurient appetites which the British media, like our own, no longer scruple to serve will always be fascinated with the potential for sexual titillation in the story of female prisoners of war. Later the Leading Seaman said that she would "give a percentage of her fee to HMS Cornwall for the benefit of its crew and their families." Noblesse oblige!
Naturally, her good fortune must have caused some annoyance to the Mrs Turney’s male colleagues. I’d like to think that we could take it as a hopeful sign of the survival of more traditional values that Dean Harris, 30, an acting sergeant in the Royal Marines and one of the hostages, told a Sunday Times reporter: "I want £70,000. That is based on what the others have told me they have been offered. I know Faye has been offered a heck [of a lot] more than that. I am worth it because I was one of only two who didn’t crack." Alas, the ban was renewed before Sergeant Harris could collect the bids. I think in any case that he probably overestimates the market value of his (relative) heroism. Indeed, it would not surprise me to learn that it was the most abject of his fellow non-female captives who would have commanded the highest price, even if he had not been the only one besides Leading Seaman Turney to sell while he could. This was poor Operator Mechanic Batchelor who, for an undisclosed sum, told The Daily Mirror that he had cried himself to sleep at night and that "at the worst times, Faye and Lt Carman were like my mother and father."
So far as the British authorities were concerned, the honor of the hostages, such as it was or wasn’t, had to be considered only in relation to the domestic media culture whose attachment to the human and emotional scale in reporting on matters of war and peace and diplomacy is well understood. The Blair government’s spin machine was, as always, geared up for an audience consisting of the domestic media and the consumers of its product. Even portions of that audience — perhaps the low bidders — found the original decision of Mr Des Browne, the defense minister, to allow the former hostages to sell their stories to, er , the media repugnant and so succeeded in having it reversed. But there seemed to be no consideration at all given to the audience made up of Britain’s enemies. For them, the new-minted celebrities were not characterized by courage or dignity but were a sign of the success of their own insult to British national honor. But the very idea of national honor seemed to be as little understood in London as it is in Washington.
For, back in the USA, the failure of most if not all of the media and of the now-powerful political opposition to President Bush to understand the objections raised by a few Bush partisans and others to the mission that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, had undertaken to Iran’s ally, Syria, while the hostage crisis was going on also betokened an unfamiliarity with the concept of national honor. The Speaker’s journey and especially her meeting with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, were undertaken in defiance of an administration and a state department constitutionally charged with conducting American foreign policy. That policy, formulated in response to Syria’s refusal to cooperate with American efforts to end the insurgency in Iraq — and, probably, its active assistance to the insurgents as well as its complicity in the murder of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon — had been one of non-engagement with the dictator. Now here was Mrs Pelosi, the leader of the political opposition to the President, announcing that "We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace."
Even without the faux pas of her misrepresenting the words of the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to President Assad, the fact that America was, as a consequence of her ill-advised journey, speaking with two voices in the international forum was a sign of weakness in itself and therefore could not but diminish the American capacity to act, as much in ways the Speaker would have favored as in those mapped out by the Bush administration’s foreign policy. She herself must have known enough to have some idea of what it was she was being criticized for, as she claimed in an interview that "Our message was President Bush’s message" — though if it were, you’d think she’d have had sense enough not to undermine it by operating independently. As with the attempts by the Democratic majorities in Congress to set a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Mrs Pelosi’s aim in practice if not in theory was to make it impossible for the administration’s policies to succeed.
Yet in most of the media and among Democrats both matters continued to be discussed as if all that mattered was which of the two, the Speaker or the President, had in the abstract and independently of the actual diplomatic and military conditions in the region the approach more likely to succeed in furthering American interests. One remarkable, and honorable, exception was an editorial in the Washington Post, which editorialized that
The really striking development here is the attempt by a Democratic congressional leader to substitute her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president. Two weeks ago Ms. Pelosi rammed legislation through the House of Representatives that would strip Mr. Bush of his authority as commander in chief to manage troop movements in Iraq. Now she is attempting to introduce a new Middle East policy that directly conflicts with that of the president. We have found much to criticize in Mr. Bush's military strategy and regional diplomacy. But Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish.
To this, the Speaker’s colleague Representative Tom Lantos of California, who traveled with her to Syria as alternative secretary of state to her alternative president, wrote in reply to the Post:
As Ms. Pelosi said during her visit, she supports the administration's policy goals in Syria, so The Post's claim about a "shadow presidency" is absurd. But she also agrees with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's conclusion that constructive dialogue is a critical means of addressing our concerns with Damascus.
And then, in the next breath, he added:
The administration's approach has yielded nothing but Syrian intransigence. Five Republican members of Congress visited Mr. Assad this week. Based on the traffic to Syria, a growing number of Republicans and Democrats share the speaker's misgivings about the White House's ineffectiveness.
The fact that Congressman Lantos doesn’t see the glaring contradiction between the two assertions — that the Speaker "supports the administration’s policy goals in Syria" and that "the administration’s approach has yielded nothing but Syrian intransigence" and so may be charged with "ineffectiveness" — suggests that solipsism is still as hard at work weakening America’s political, diplomatic and moral authority in the world as it was in President Clinton’s day.