On Jan. 12, 2015 Iran seized ten American sailors on two small US Navy boats and broadcast their humiliation to the world.

US sailors detained by Iran

When releasing them the following day, Iran claimed the US government had apologized for their intrusion into Iranian waters. Washington’s  subsequent tergiversations (or equivocations) about the boats’ location looms small against the humiliation swallowed. The previous evening, the President of the United States had spoken on the State Of The Union to Congress as if relations with Iran were just fine.

In fact, by seizing US military members, Iran had committed a casus belli — a classic cause for war under international law. It felt safe in doing so recalling that the US government had acquiesced to its year-long seizure of the US diplomatic mission in Tehran 1979.

Damaged US surveillance plane at Chinese airfield on Hainan Island in 2001

In 2001, Chinese fighter planes damaged an American reconnaissance aircraft over international waters. Its crew, had no choice but to land in China, where they were held prisoner for 11 days until President Bush apologized. Most recently, the US held back as its diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya was attacked and its ambassador murdered. Most recently, it also let pass Iran’s firing, literally, a shot across the bow of a US aircraft carrier.

Why Iran’s government chose this occasion to provide the US government with yet another opportunity to disregard what self-respecting countries treat as rights, obligations, and honor is unimportant in comparison with how this self-disrespect degrades America’s prospects for peace.

Disproportion between commitments and the capacity — indeed the willingness — to back them up has been the defining characteristic of the US government’s international relations for a quarter century. The US formula is to place token forces in situations in which they are over matched, expecting that hostile powers will not do their worst for fear of “tripping a wire” that would bring on an overwhelming American response.

Thus, US officials have habituated themselves to substituting “trip wire” forces and promises that they don’t intend to keep. This, in place of the moral resolve and military power that would be required to carry out successful policy in the face of opposition. Decades during which American military power has decreased while the US government has short shrifted commitments — solemn, implied, or inherent, like those to one’s own military or diplomats — have shopworn that formula. US officials and the “community” of academics, think tanks, and media around them seem unaware that their credibility has declined even as the rest of the world’s capacity and willingness to press their agendas has increased.

Iran’s and President Obama’s cooperation in America’s latest humiliation will shape the outcome of crises that loom in our relations with Russia and China.

US armored vehicles deployed to Estonia to “deter” Russia

Russia began to destroy America’s alliance with Europe by showing America’s incapacity to defend Ukraine. It has let it be known that it will take the next major step in this process by doing to the Baltic States what it did to Ukraine while daring America to do something about it. Instead  of rebuilding American military power, including a serious missile defense, the US advertises that it will send up to 5,000 military personnel to the Baltics in a crisis. It would not take much for the nuclear-armed Russian army to make prisoners of troops that were neither intended or equipped to fight it. Russia’s government could be forgiven for thinking of the precedents set in US-Iran relations as it dismissed dire U.S warnings as unserious, and demanded ransom for the American soldiers’ safe return. Under the circumstances, there would be no alternative to paying that ransom.

China, with deeds more than with words, is staking a claim to the Western Pacific’s islands and seas. A series of artificial islands that serve as huge, unsinkable, super aircraft carriers is its most notable defensive element in this offensive strategy. The US government’s reaction to China’s projection of military power potentially a thousand miles from its coast is to send planes and ships periodically to fly and sail near those islands to assert “freedom of navigation.” This is an empty formality supported by placing US military personnel at risk for capture.

US embassy hostages in Tehran 1979

China warns that it will enforce its control over the waters and artificial islands it claims. The US government acts as if China has no serious military purpose for those islands. If it thought otherwise, what good would it do to fly or sail near them? Just to spite the Chinese? It also acts as if China does not mean it when it warns against trespassing. If the US took the warnings seriously, it would enter those areas with forces capable of fighting their way out. What, reasonably, can be expected of sending practically defenseless sailors and airmen into harms’ way? Especially as the Chinese look to the precedents set by Iran, why should they not capture Americans?

Alas, the US government has placed hostage crises in our future.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He is the author of fourteen books, including  Informing Statecraft, War, ends And Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and To Make and Keep Peace.  He served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition teams for the Department of State and the Intelligence agencies. He was a US naval officer and a US foreign service officer. As a staff member of the US Senate Intelligence committee, he supervised the intelligence agencies’ budgets with emphasis on collection systems and counterintelligence. He was instrumental in developing technologies for modern anti-missile defense. Codevilla has taught ancient and modern political thought and international affairs at major universities.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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