If you’ve ever had a bad back you know the drill: the doctor places your legs and feet in various positions, takes his hands and pushes in various ways, and asks you to push back each time.
What’s he doing? It’s a crude measurement of strength, because back problems can cause nerve injuries that not only can cause pain but can damage motor neurons. The best and easiest way to test motor strength is to push and see whether the patient can push back, and, if so, how forcibly.
Testing our strength isn’t all Iran is doing right now in its capture of fifteen British sailors, who are seemingly about to be used as bargaining chips in a game of “free the prisoners.” But it certainly seem to be a big part of it.
Just as Hitler was testing the waters of Allied determination in Munich and finding them surprisingly warm and pleasant, Iran has been testing the waters of the West since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and swimming quite comfortably there. In fact, one of the earliest acts under Khomeini’s regime was to precipitate the extraordinarily lengthy embassy hostage crisis, which gave the mullahs the idea that the West lacked a certain vigor in its response and its will to win.
In the present situation, Prime Minister Tony Blair says that the captured sailors and marines were not in Iranian territorial waters when seized. No surprise there. He also says that Britain considers their fate a “fundamental” issue. Good.
However, in the same sentence, Blair adds, “I want to get it resolved in as easy and diplomatic a way as possible.”
Of course diplomacy has to be tried here. So I don’t really have a quarrel with Blair mentioning it. It’s the word “easy” that sends just the wrong note of weakness to the Iranians, revealing what I’ve come to think is the true mindset of much of the West, and certainly of Europe: we’re psychologically unready for this fight.
Is there any sane person who thought that dealing with Iran was going to be “easy?” Is there anyone who thinks it wise to convey to the Iranians that we even want it to be “easy?”
Blair, of course, is speaking here at least partly to his own people, reassuring them that the result of this particular hostage-taking is not going to be another highly unpopular war like that in Iraq. In so doing, he reassures Iran that he’s not going to push all that hard against their own push.
When we study the events of Munich in September of 1938, it’s easy to forget one important aspect: Chamberlain’s actions were highly popular with British subjects. When he returned waving that piece of paper and speaking of “Peace for our time,” their reaction is described as having been “ecstatic.”
One can hardly blame the British of the time. It was only twenty years after the end of World War I, fought against the same country, Germany, and causing such widespread loss of life that an entire generation of England’s best and brightest had been literally decimated.
And I mean the word “literally”–well, literally. Take a look. Of about 5,400,000 mobilized, 703,000 were killed and over a million and a half wounded. The death rate therefore was around thirteen percent, well over the ten percent that constitutes the definition of the word “decimate.” And the casualty rate of the British in that war was forty-four percent. One can forgive them for being war weary, after what they’d been through.
When criticizing Chamberlain, it’s also easy to forget that he wised up pretty quickly, although it was tragically too late. In the spring of 1939, less than six months after Munich, Hitler broke the pact and invaded Czechoslovakia. To his credit, Chamberlain realized that this constituted a betrayal, and started to mobilize Britain for the inevitable war to follow.
When Hitler invaded Poland a few months later, Chamberlain had this to say:
The time has come when action rather than speech is required…No man can say that the Government could have done more to try to keep open the way for an honorable and equitable settlement of the dispute between Germany and Poland. Nor have we neglected any means of making it crystal clear to the German Government that if they insisted on using force again in the manner in which they had used it in the past we were resolved to oppose them by force.
So, at least Chamberlain felt that he had previously conveyed to Hitler that, if Hitler went too far, Britain would go to war. My guess is that Chamberlain may have mouthed some words to that effect, but Hitler took the measure of the man and didn’t quite believe them. Or perhaps he did, and didn’t much care; Hitler may have been playing for more time, trying to get what he could “easily,” without fighting for it. In this, the Chamberlain government initially cooperated.
Hitler apparently had contempt for Chamberlain after Munich, in the way that bullies often size up their opponents and seize on those they perceive as weak. “If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers” Hitler is quoted as having said.
One wonders what Ahmadinejad and his superiors, the mullahs, are saying about Tony Blair right now. One wonders what they (and their predecessors) said about Jimmy Carter way back when.
It appears at this moment that Western muscles have become rather flaccid, even though the tools they could manipulate with those weakened muscles are highly powerful. The Iranians, of course, seek control of some of those fancy tools themselves. When they obtain them, perhaps they won’t lack the muscle–both mental and physical–to use them.
Churchill, Chamberlain’s successor, never talked about what was easy. He may have hoped that it would be easy or prayed that it would be easy, but to the British people (and to the listening enemy) he conveyed a very different idea.
On first taking office in May of 1940, many Conservatives still wanted Chamberlain. Churchill himself knew he had a tough message; he confided in a general, “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”
In his first speech to Parliament, Churchill made this clear, saying the famous words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Later in the speech he conveyed—to Britain, its allies, and to Hitler—what else he had to offer: resolve and hope.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
No, the situations are not parallel. The seizure of the sailors and marines by Iran is not tantamount to a declaration of war, and war is not a proper response at this time. My point, however, is that rhetoric is not irrelevant, nor is it empty. How can we convey actual resolve to the Iranians if we don’t even speak as though we have it?