Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, War on Terror — Rick Moran @ 10:12 am

Max Boot, writing at Commentary:

In 1847, David Pacifico, a Jew who had been born in British-held Gibraltar and was therefore a British subject, had his house burned down in Athens by an anti-Semitic mob. The Greek government refused to protect him or provide any restitution. Lord Palmerston, Britain’s foreign secretary, sent the Royal Navy to blockade Greece until it paid Pacifico’s demands.

Critics charged that Palmerston was overreacting. The House of Lords even voted to censure him. But in the House of Commons, Palmerston carried the day with a magnificent five-hour oration in which he declared: “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen], so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.”

Theodore Roosevelt struck a similar tone in 1904 after Ion Perdicaris, a Greek-American living in Morocco, was kidnapped by the bandit chief Ahmed al-Raisuli. His Secretary of State John Hay drove the 1904 Republican Convention into a frenzy of approbation when he made it known that an American naval squadron had been sent to Morocco to demand “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” (It later turned out that Perdicaris was no longer an American citizen, but that was a mere detail compared to the principle Roosevelt espoused.)

I recount these tidbits of ancient history to show how far we have come over the past century — in the wrong direction. Today the United States is the mightiest nation in the world — far stronger than Britain was in its 19th-century heyday or than we ourselves were in 1904. Yet what happens today to those who dare take our citizens hostage? Umm, pretty much nothing.

Boot bemoans the death of gunboat diplomacy and pines for the good old days when if even one American was placed in peril of his freedom, the Navy would gallop to the rescue, threatening those sultans, potentates, and tinpot dictators with swift and certain destruction if they dared to muss a single hair on our fellow countryman’s head. He grouses that hostage taking (which is what, in essence, the North Koreans did with a our recently released journalists), is now “a matter for diplomatic confabs rather than military movements.”

Yes…and thank God for that.

Boot is smarter than this and it pains me that he has opined with such shallow and wrongheaded analysis. In fact, it is utter nonsense to draw any kind of parallels between 19th century notions of protecting our citizens from harm and the challenges facing 21st century statecraft in not allowing small incidents like this to blow up into regional or even worldwide conflagrations.

And let’s not forget a healthy dose of overweening nationalism and arrogant imperialism that was at the bottom of many of those exercises in western power. How dare those ignorant savages insult one of our citizens! By jove, send Old Ironsides and park her right in the middle of their best harbor. I’ll bet it will be a long time before those backward yahoos try and insult America again!

Boot refers to the evolution in the way we handle these incidents as the “wrong direction.” That’s poppycock. The world is an enormously more complex place than it was in the 19th and turn of the 20th century. Boot knows this and yet, wants a more nationalistic outburst from the government and the American people when hostage taking by these thugs occurs:

Granted, there are good reasons not to launch a war against North Korea or Iran over the fate of these hostages. North Korea, after all, has something that the Moroccans and Greeks didn’t — nuclear weapons. Still, it’s an outrage that there isn’t more outrage, either in the U.S. government or the country at large, over the fate of our fellow citizens who are held hostage by thugs. We could use a “Civis Americanus Sum” doctrine today.

You know, I could give a crap what the Romans would have done in instances such as these. The situations are in no way analogous and bespeak a frightening surrender to emotionalism when patience and reason are called for.

I can see a military element to the equation if we are ever confronted with the kind of mass hostage taking that occurred in Iran or could have occurred in Grenada. And an incident like the Mayaguez or the USS Pueblo capture by the North Koreans certainly demands a military response.

But rouge nations like Iran and North Korea using a couple of Americans as pawns in a larger diplomatic game by capturing them and holding them for ransom might indeed generate outrage but after that kind of emotional explosion, where are you? What good was accomplished? Are the hostages any closer to coming home?

And what good would it do to send the Seventh Fleet or even just a carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf or the Sea of Japan? I know Boot recalls the Falklands where obsolete (at the time) Exocet missiles did a lot of damage to the British Fleet. Both Iran and North Korea have anti-ship weapons that are considerably more modern and sophisticated than Argentina possessed. I daresay any overt military response from our Navy would be answered in a way that could get a lot of Americans killed and probably escalate the incident into something neither side would have wanted.

The world has changed in the last 100 years and Boot, for whatever reason, doesn’t apply the necessary logic to the issues involved and simply goes off on an emotional jag, questioning why we can’t respond to hostage taking the same way that good old TR would have. Not granting the exponentially more complex world we live in today compared to Teddy Roosevelt’s dreams of imperial subjugation with his “big stick” makes such displays laughably obsolete, if not emotionally satisfying.

But it would be a helluva price to pay simply to partake in a chest puffing exercise in futility.


  1. You’re right.

    I’m normally all for blowing people up, but even Boot’s history is wrong. The Romans paid off foreign potentates all the time. They bought them off with gold, land, protection, you name it. So did their descendants in medieval and later Europe. It’s part of the cost of doing business.

    By the way, I really think if we’re going to start a war with North Korea we should at least consult with the South Koreans who are the people who’d be having artillery shells landing in their back yards.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 8/5/2009 @ 10:40 am

  2. As Boot notes, North Korea has nuclear weapons. They have also been cultivating the appearance of sufficient craziness to use them. (That is, it is hard to be sure it is not genuine craziness.)
    (rouge -> rogue, though rouge might apply to NK)

    Comment by Bill Arnold — 8/5/2009 @ 12:17 pm

  3. Hi Rick,
    I hope all’s well.

    I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    People like the Norks and the mullahs don’t understand ‘diplomacy’ and nuance.They understand strength and real consequences.

    What starts out as trivial insults gradually morphs into disrespect, than into hostage taking and blackmail, and finally into actual hostility and military assaults.

    Keep in mind that the Islamic Republic started out their ‘relationship’ with America by getting away with doing something no other country in history had pulled off - the forcible taking of our embassy and imprisoning of our diplomats.That was an act of war.

    If you don’t believe that their success at doing so with impunity has influenced their subsequent behavior,(and the behavior of others) I honestly don’t think you’ve been paying attention.

    Nor is it necessary to use blue water ships for gunboat diplomacy in our modern era.It was Soviet leader Kosygin who said in 1979 that if the Iranians had taken a Soviet embassy, their people would have been released in 48 hours or Tehran would have been reduced to a blackened crater.

    After a suitable and short interval( no more than 48 hours) to ascertain what happened and attempt a peaceful release of our people, it ought to be ultimatum time…an dif our people aren’t released, we should follow through.

    Oh, and by the way, the reason North Korea is being allowed to behave in the manner it does is because of their relationship with China, not any military strength they possess.


    Comment by Rob — 8/5/2009 @ 12:50 pm

  4. Good post Rick. Boot is actually being consistent as he sees a military solution for almost any problem. So do Andrew McCarthy and Caroline Glick.

    Comment by gregdn — 8/5/2009 @ 1:20 pm

  5. I agree with you, but I disagree that the world is more complex. The world has always been complex and in fact the world is in some ways much simpler than in the 19th century.

    Comment by theblackcommenter — 8/5/2009 @ 1:30 pm

  6. Actually, I believe your wrong. Perhaps I’m somewhat shallow or biased, but after 24 years of naval service as an Intelligence Officer, and another 6 years working in Counterterrorism, my experiences have taught me that it is the lack of penalty that encourages acts against American interests. Americans are abused because acts against Americans are rewarded, either by the U.S. directly, or through acclaim and accolades at home. Countries are like people; they respond positively to rewards, and negatively to punishment. For Example: Piracy on the Horn of Africa is very lucrative, and will not be eliminated until it simply becomes too painful to continue. Should we actually wish to stop piracy, (and I see no evidence that we do wish to stop it) we could do so in 30 minutes of intensive bombing of the homes and loved ones of those who participate in it. If we destroy all the pirates hold dear, they will stop. Thus it has always been. Piracy has never ever been stopped at sea. It has always ended with an attack on the home-bases of of pirate fleets. But, the U.S. won’t do that. Too messy, too dirty, really just too mean. Countries act in the same manner; Libya comes immediately to mind - when they thought we were serious, the behavior of the Libyans changed (bombing the beejeebees out of Iraq focused their attention). Don’t go with the false sophistry of the complexity of the world; it’s not more complex, just more lethal. Our interests remain the same; the life, security and health of our people, the integrity of our nations territory, the equity of our relationships.

    Comment by Dave Heller — 8/5/2009 @ 1:41 pm

  7. They are basically taking hostages and getting paid off. This is not a winning strategy for us. So Boot goes too far with the military option. What’s the solution, Rick? Sucking up to them as we are doing now is not smart, imho.

    Sometimes, there are no good solutions. So you take the one that will do the least damage to your interests and is thankfully, the correct moral choice; you save the hostages.

    I think Kim would have found another way to get what he got out of us in this instance if we hadn’t bartered - probably in the nuke negotiations. We actually lost very little.


    Comment by Harry O — 8/5/2009 @ 1:56 pm

  8. You are right but not for the directly stated reason.

    When people put themselves in harm’s way, as apparently happened when this pair of dolts ventured into North Korea from China, our government has no obligation to protect them. If a government crosses a border and does the same thing to our citizens, of course, it verges on an act of war.

    And if those truly were tourists in Iraq who ventured into Iran, one word: Darwinism.

    I feel the same way about fools who put EMTs, police officers, and other first responders in harm’s way when they climb buildings and such nonsense. Let ‘em fall.

    Comment by obamathered — 8/5/2009 @ 3:43 pm

  9. I think the phrase that Rick is trying to describe is “proportional response”. That is, a balanced action by the US government to confront what is at stake. (In this case, 20 hours of Bill Clinton brown-nosing with the Kim junta equals 2 freed hostages.) Leaving the hostages to their fate would have been cowardly, attacking North Korea (directly or indirectly) would have risked war. Neither of these outcomes is in our interests; the middle way in this instance is the least-worst choice.

    Comment by Surabaya Stew — 8/5/2009 @ 6:01 pm

  10. #6

    Can you site any examples? If we put hostage takings on a graph would we see the number rising over time? I don’t think so.

    Reagan rewarded the Iranians after 241 Marines were killed in Lebanon. Did we see a spike in attacks on Americans? Wouldn’t we have seen subsequent cases in a fairly short time frame? Did the total number of attacks on Americans rise? I don’t recall that happening. Can you make a case?

    I don’t see any kind of long-term rise in hostage takings or in attacks on Americans. If your thesis is correct we’d see some kind of trend. Is there a trend? Doesn’t look like it. In fact it looks like these thing spike and then retreat, spike again and then retreat.

    Are you actually calling for us to retaliate militarily against NK? Seriously? They arrest 2 of our journalists and we do what, bomb a NK military base? And risk war? A war that could devastate South Korea? That strikes you as rational? Do you think maybe the South Koreans might not enjoy having their cities hit with massed artillery because we need to throw a hissy fit?

    Comment by michael reynolds — 8/5/2009 @ 10:20 pm

  11. site = cite.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 8/5/2009 @ 10:20 pm

  12. Well actually I can cite on authority who equates American weakness with increased acts of terror/hostage taking:

    * In October 22, 1983, the 241 U.S. Marines were murdered by Hezbollah, along with countless others injured. Consistent with the April attack, America not only did nothing to respond, but America packed up and left Lebanon. America’s non-response–for which President Reagan was never called to talk–and its swift pullout were specifically cited by Osama Bin Laden as proof that America didn’t have the will to make its enemies pay . . . or even to survive. He cited:

    “the decline of American power and the weakness of the American soldier, who is ready to wage cold wars but unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut in 1983, when the Marines fled.”…UBL

    And… from the horses mouth so to speak, ………….”when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Interview with Bin Laden post 9/11.

    This is about as authoritative as you can get on the issues of terrorism and the use of force.

    Comment by Dave Heller — 8/6/2009 @ 6:06 am

  13. M. Renolds #10/11

    Does my previous response satisfy your desires for a cite? How about as the Romans would say:

    “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you desire peace, prepare for war.) Thats authoritative…. since they secured an empire for 1500 years.

    Comment by Dave Heller — 8/6/2009 @ 6:11 am

  14. Michael Renolds:

    You might ask any of the following if weakness contributed to their situations;

    Robert a. Levinson (hostage or dead in Iran), Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell (hostages of FARC for a half-dozen years), Joshua Fattel, Sarah Shroud and Shane Bauer (Iranian Hostages), Eugene Armstrong (beheaded), Nick Berg (beheaded), Daniel Pearl (beheaded), Thomas Humill (escaped captivity), Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry (most likely ransomed out of captivity), Richard Phillips (Captain of captured ship - former hostage)………actually the list is endless. These people are experts too…..cite them.

    Comment by Dave Heller — 8/6/2009 @ 6:37 am

  15. Dave:

    Osama is not an expert. He’s a terrorist. So no, I don’t take his pronouncements any more seriously than I take Kruschev’s assurance that the USSR would bury us. Or Kim’s endless propaganda or Castro’s or Hezbollah’s.

    I think it’s strange to credit our enemies with honesty, objectivity or accuracy. The mere fact that someone is an enemy does not make them a good analyst of American actions. And it’s certainly not reasonable to imagine that they are honestly presenting their own motives or capabilities.

    In this case, what is NK’s game going forward? Arrest three hostages next time and get what? Two ex-presidents? Does that really strike you as likely? For four journalists do they get two ex-presidents and a first lady? What exactly would be the point?

    And do you figure Somali pirates are watching this and thinking, “Hmm, next time instead of a million dollar ransom, let’s get ourselves a Bill Clinton visit?”

    This just doesn’t parse out. And you’ve given me no indication that it does. Where’s the trend line? Where’s the cause and effect?

    One of the ways the Romans prepared for war was by bribing and paying off foreign powers. It’s a myth that the Romans never paid ransom. Baloney. Roman money flowed freely into barbarian hands to secure passage for Roman troops, to win releases of prisoners, to play one bunch against another. Bribing foreign powers was the order of the day for centuries.

    Did Romans lie about this for home consumption? Of course. But out on the frontier the Roman generals were more interested in getting by, as soldiers usually are.

    And I’d still like to hear you explain why a rational response to NK hostage taking would be attacking NK militarily and risking war that would primarily devastate our ally to the south. Or what would be accomplished by making the Somali rubble bounce as a way to end piracy.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 8/6/2009 @ 7:58 am

  16. “rouge nations”

    Are these pesky foreign instigators imitating Captain Jack Sparrow? Or David Bowie?

    Comment by Obi's Sister — 8/7/2009 @ 9:21 pm

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