It was a foreign policy crisis: After an equipment failure rendered their vehicle inoperative, a group of American military personnel had fallen into the hands of an adversarial state far away. How would the president get them back? A daring rescue mission? Threats of military action? Diplomacy? Outright groveling? In the end, he felt he had no choice but to submit to the hostage-takers' demands, and the government wrote a letter filled with apologetic language ("We are very sorry" for the incident, and "We appreciate" our adversary's "efforts to see to the well-being of our crew" they held prisoner for 10 days).
You would think that Republicans, who are so committed to the singular importance of "strength" in foreign affairs, would have been outraged and appalled at the weakness shown by the president in this incident. But they weren't. That's because the president was George W. Bush, and this was April 2001, when an American spy plane had to make an emergency landing on a Chinese island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet. Here's the letter of apology.
It was hard not to be reminded of that incident 15 years ago when this week two small American naval boats apparently drifted into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf after engines failed, and the Iranian navy detained them. As soon as the capture of the vessels was reported, Republican politicians stiffened their spines, flexed their pecs, and condemned the wimpy and feckless Obama administration that was obviously going to grovel before the ayatollah, leaving our brave sailors at the mercy of the Iranians for who knows how many days, weeks, or months. "The fact that [the capture] happened is a direct consequence of the weakness of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy," said Ted Cruz, no doubt thinking wistfully about how if he were in charge, once the boats came up on radar the Iranians would have said, "Let them go where they want — we don't want to anger President Cruz, who is so strong and resolute." Joe Scarborough, perhaps caught in the middle of a Charles Atlas workout, tweeted, "Hey Iran, you have exactly 300 days left to push a U.S. president around. Enjoy it while you can. After that, there will be hell to pay." Jeb Bush, testosterone practically dripping off his iPhone, tweeted, "If our sailors aren't coming home yet, they need to be now. No more bargaining. Obama's humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again."
But then something strange happened. Wednesday morning, after only 16 hours, Iran released the sailors back to the United States, along with their boats. And we didn't even have to bomb anybody.
A few conservatives are currently expressing faux-outrage over photos taken by the Iranians showing the sailors with their hands on their heads during the capture, as though that were some epic humiliation. But what's important is that the whole matter was settled through a series of phone calls between American and Iranian officials, in which they apparently agreed that nobody was trying to be provocative and it would be best not to blow this out of proportion. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly made the case that the administration was able to resolve this incident the way it did because of the diplomatic contacts that had been built up during negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. "We can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago," he said. "Today, this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved and efficiently resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong."
So what do we learn from this? First, diplomacy does work. It's possible that even if we hadn't spent a couple of years negotiating with Iran, we would have arrived at the same outcome, but it probably didn't hurt that our officials and their officials have a better relationship today. And it's hard to imagine that even the most bellicose of Republican candidates wouldn't have done the same thing the Obama administration did.
Maybe we're supposed to believe that if someone like Ted Cruz was president and a couple of small boats got captured, when his secretary of state said, "Mr. President, I'll call their foreign minister and see if we can't get this taken care of," he'll say, "No, Bob — I'm going to go on TV and tell those jerks that if they don't release our sailors in 10 minutes, we're letting the bombs fall!" But I doubt it. In the real world, Republicans do diplomacy when the situation demands it too, and I have trouble believing that any politician would be so reckless as to cause a confrontation when it would have been so unnecessary.
Second, it's a reminder that reducing every foreign policy question to "strength" is idiotic. There are times when strength matters a lot, and times when you have to be smart and restrained. Complaining about the "weakness" of the Obama administration may play well during primary season, but in real foreign policy a nation doesn't demonstrate strength by going around provoking everything it sees.
That's how you act when you're gripped by insecurity and you need to overcompensate. Candidates can live in their fantasy world, where they're constantly causing dramatic showdowns they always win because of their steely glare. But fortunately for us (and for those 10 sailors), none of them had the chance to test their theory. At least not this time.