Heroes or Cowards? Neocons Weigh In on Sailors

WASHINGTON - Name, rank, serial number and sign on the dotted line. No sooner had Britain's 15 "kidnapped" sailors and marines returned from their harrowing "hostage" experience at the hands of Iran than some were lining up to sell their stories to the British press. And no sooner had they been accused of "acting like reality TV stars" than they became a punching bag for U.S. neoconservatives and other right-wing hawks who cast the sailors' "humiliating" behaviour and their government's equally "bungled" response as an affront to the Anglosphere and its interests in the Middle East.

"If there has ever in history been a faster, more humiliating submission to Stockholm syndrome, we're unaware of it," read an editorial in the New York Post, a neoconservative daily owned by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. "But aren't British service personnel trained for this sort of thing?"

Mark Steyn, a neoconservative syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, was equally unimpressed when he wrote, "The Queen's Navee had been demobbed. The token gal was dressed up as an Islamic woman and the 14 men had been kitted out in [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's leisurewear."

Apparently, the details of training for hostage situations are kept secret, according to Britain's Defence Ministry. If the Iranian government's sophisticated tactics of coercion are any indication, the training would not have made of much a difference anyway.

Iran used the British sailors -- captured in March by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as they patrolled the Shatt al-Arab waterway -- as a propaganda tool. They paraded them in front of Iran's state-run media and coerced confessions from them. But the British government may have been just as eager to manipulate Iran's tawdry stunt to their advantage. Their first step? Cite "exceptional circumstances" and allow the sailors to sell their version of events to the British media.

However, the window of opportunity to cash in was short-lived, as Britain's Ministry of Defence on Monday banned any more sailors from profiting from their captivity. That was after the lone female sailor, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, reportedly struck deals worth more than 100,000 pounds with British channel ITV1 for her story, and after Arthur Batchelor, 20, the youngest of the sailors, told the Daily Mirror that he "cried like a baby" in his prison cell.

"A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst. We've all seen the videos," said Batchelor in the same interview, perhaps referring to decapitation videos made by clandestine terrorist organisations like al Qaeda, the most notorious of which captured the murders of U.S. businessman Nicholas Berg and Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Iran has not been implicated in the creation or distribution of decapitation videos popularised by Sunni extremist groups.

In response to Britain's vigorous defence that the sailors "acted with immense courage and dignity," the same New York Post editorial remarked, "That's just icing on the capitulation cake -- adding to a humiliation that will have consequences far into the future."

It's the consequences of Britain's ostensible "soft power" approach with Iran that enrage neoconservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer the most. For him, the "humiliation" suffered by the British is evidence that the international community and "its great institutions" are a sham, and that multilateralism is a dead end.

"You want your people back? Go to the [European Union] and get stiffed. Go to the [U.N.] Security Council and get a statement that refuses even to 'deplore' this act of piracy," he wrote in the Washington Post. "Then turn to the despised Americans. They'll deal you some cards and bail you out."

With 136 British servicemen and women killed in Iraq, the British government announced in February a new timetable for withdrawing its 7,000-strong force from the war-torn country. Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that 3,000 of those soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007.

Britain's announcement came as the George W. Bush administration implemented an increase of 21,100 more U.S. troops to Iraq, and the standoff between Iran and Britain over the detained sailors has brought a new complication for Blair, who wants to tiptoe out of Basra before the situation gets out of hand.

Other neoconservative hawks have seized on Britain's bungling diplomatic response as an argument for unilateral action and a warning for Iran's future dealings with the international community with regard to its nuclear aspirations.

In an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton excoriated the British Foreign Office: "This passive, hesitant, almost acquiescent approach barely concealed the Foreign Office's real objective: keeping the faint hope alive that three years of failed negotiations on Iran's nuclear weapons programme would not suffer another, this time possibly fatal, setback."

FOX News got in on the act too, framing the debate of the returning sailors in terms of whether they are heroes or cowards.

"There's no way to put a good face on this, the kissy-face with Ahmadinejad, the goodie-bags, this was a real failure of leadership." said Lt. Col. Ralph Peters to Neil Cavuto of FOX. "A U.S. service member would not accept that goodie bag, wouldn't profusely in front of the cameras thank the Iranian president."

Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis, another FOX "expert" and contributor to a Christian radio programme called Jimmy DeYoung's Prophecy Today Weekly, labeled the British sailors "cowards".

"It looks like Holiday in Tehran... They were standing in front of Ahmadinejad, and you know they were thanking him for their kind treatment, for letting them go... He was giving them Persian candy and all sorts of souvenirs to take home."

But neoconservative CNN talk show pundit Glen Beck summed it up most eloquently when he proclaimed, "Iran played chicken with the West and we blinked."

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.