The Art of Seaborne Humiliation

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

A tiny flotilla of “peace ships” sets out to run an Israeli blockade of the Gaza coast. The Israeli strategy in response is intended to ensure that neither weapons nor terrorists enter the Hamas-held territory, at a time when Hamas is in a virtual war with Israel.

Once the ships neared the coast, the choices were not good. Either the Israelis could allow the ships through, rendering the blockade irrelevant and permitting dozens of unknown persons to enter Gaza, along with unspecified cargos — or the Israelis had to intervene, ensuring that at some point they might have to use force, perhaps against some passengers who were not entirely unarmed.

And once things reached that point, the militarily dominant Israelis had lost the public-relations war — at least as conventional wisdom defines it. The Gaza flotilla, then, joins a long list of incidents — intifadas, kidnappings, rocket attacks — in which the provocation proves minor in comparison with the hoped-for response.

The aim of such provocations is to create over time a narrative in which the Israelis appear to be bullying aggressors not worthy of global, and perhaps not even of Western, support. As these incidents continue, Israel’s enemies hope that at some point Israel will go too far, wear too thin the patience of the West, and finally lose the financial, military, and diplomatic support necessary for its very survival. That point has already been reached in Europe, and the Gaza-flotilla incident was aimed at doing the same within the United States — given the reset-button Middle East policy of President Obama.

As a general rule, nothing much good comes to a Western power when a rogue nation or anti-Western organization seeks confrontation on the seas. In such incidents, Iranians, Palestinians, North Koreans, and generic pirates are judged on an entirely different set of moral rules that tend to offer exemption for the weaker power (i.e., the victims of “disproportionate” force) or the crazier party (i.e., we expect provocation from them, but not retaliation from you).

In an unprovoked attack this past March, North Korea torpedoed a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors. The general facts were clear enough, given torpedo fragments and the conclusions of an international body of experts who examined them.

But was South Korea going to risk a war — or even a small and temporary economic downturn — in any such period of heightened tensions? Would it restore deterrence if the South Korean navy sank the next North Korean ship that came its way?

Probably not. After all, there were neither worldwide demonstrations lamenting the killing of the South Korean sailors nor popular demands for retaliation against such naked aggression. But then, South Koreans are listening to iPods while not long ago North Koreans were eating grass.

China, nuclear North Korea’s nuclear patron, was, of course, slightly miffed by the incident, given its commercial interest in keeping regional calm, but it was also slightly amused that states like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan from time to time have to be reminded that power is not solely to be defined by GDP. As it is now, South Korea plays by the rules, convenes its expert panel to confirm what one already knew — and in the process humiliates itself by being presented with facts that, for a variety of reasons, it believes it cannot act upon.

When the Iranians hijacked a British patrol boat in March 2007 and took 15 sailors hostage for two weeks, the United Kingdom did little in response. Who wishes to go to war over a tiny spat like that? Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad paraded the sailors on television, fitted them out with Iranian dress, and thereby reminded the world that the navy of Nelson either cannot or will not protect its own personnel on the high seas. The message was clear to the nearby rich, but weak, Gulf oil exporters: Would you prefer to be allied with a brazen upstart that takes hostages from a supposedly stronger power, or with a hesitant power that begs to have them returned?

Over 1,000 pirates operate off the Somali coast. In 2009 they attempted 214 attacks on private shipping, well over twice the number tried in 2008. They remind ocean-goers that the world’s great navies cannot ensure safe passage through the Gulf of Aden. And they count on Western publics’ contextualizing their criminality — by adducing poverty, past exploitation, or lack of Western humanitarian aid — rather than demanding punishment for it.

Of course, the classical way of ending piracy — as Pompey demonstrated with the Cilician outlaws — is to combine naval interception with assaults against the criminals’ home ports. But again, given the asymmetry involved in piracy — wealthy Western ship- or boat-owners versus desperate “others” — who wants to risk killing poor Third World civilians just to hit the pirates who live among them? The final scenes of Black Hawk Down give us a taste of what the shooting might look like on CNN.

Many other such incidents could be cited — think of the 1968 capture of thePueblo by North Korea or the 1975 taking of the Mayaguez by the Khmer Rouge. While the details differ, the general playbook remains the same: Some sort of incident is staged at sea, where witnesses and boundaries are often nonexistent, in order to provoke a response that will work to the provoker’s benefit.

In each of these cases, the instigator dares a powerful Western nation to retaliate and thereby stupidly endanger its collective good life over a small matter of 19th-century-style national pride. And if violence follows, the props almost always ensure that the Western nation is transmogrified in the blink of an eye into a bully, pushing around the Other where it has no business being in the first place. No wonder that the Western nation usually instead sends diplomats to work out some sort of restrained apology, which gives the provocateur stature and pours more humiliation upon the provoked — another milestone on a long road of weakening Western stature and influence.

What might change the rules of seaborne humiliation?

Perhaps the only remedy would be a new sort of public opinion that requires leaders to resist concessions. Such a tougher policy at first might mean some greater risk of violence, but standing up to Iranians, or North Koreans, or Somali pirates — or pro-Hamas activists — would, in the long run, reestablish deterrence and convince the aggressors that the last thing they wish to do is take on a Western ship.

In this regard, if Israel can make the case that it has a perfect right to inspect ships intending to bring supplies and persons into Gaza, then it should increase, not cease, such vigilance. What it would lose in public opinion in the short term would be more than outweighed in the long term by the establishment of a new scenario in which no ship, under any circumstances, wishes to confront an Israeli vessel at sea. But unless and until that happens, expect not only that the provocations of Hamas and its fellow travelers will increase, but also that regional powers from Iran to Turkey will take note of how staging confrontations with Israel results in strategic advantage — and favorable global press.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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