Lewis Carroll on foreign policy, revisited

In the wake of the controversy over Gillian Gibbons, the hapless British school teacher jailed by Islamic fanatics in Sudan, several readers have asked me to re-post a piece I wrote for Armavirumque, The New Criterion weblog, last March when Iran kidnapped 15 British Solidiers and proceeded to humiliate them, and Great Britain, for a week or so. Here’s the post; I suppose it might be filed under “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“:


March 31, 2007

A news story from a recent issue of The New York Times

The United States Navy captured 15 Iranian sailors two days ago and has apparently taken them hostage. Tehran claims that the sailors, who were on a routine UN-sanctioned patrol, were operating in international waters, but the Bush administration charges that they were picked up in US territorial waters. One administration spokesman assured reporters that the sailors were being well treated but said that they may be brought to trial for spying, a capital offense. Tehran said its request to communicate with the detained troops has not been granted by Washington. Although the whereabouts of the sailors is unknown, CNN this evening broadcast a video clip of the sailors in captivity. In a three-minute interview, one sailor apologized for Iranian aggression and confessed that his patrol had knowingly violated US territory. Tehran dismissed the confession, claiming that it was made under duress. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators in the streets of Washington and New York are demanding the sailors be executed.

Just kidding, of course. It’s the Iranians who specialize in taking people hostage. They are never happier than when storming a US embassy and rounding up the staff for a year-long furlough in some out-of-the-way vacation spot in Tehran. It makes a change from publicly hanging 16-year-old girls for “crimes against chastity” or cutting off the right hand and left foot of thieves, and other such “traditional” entertainments (e.g., public flogging and stoning). The Iranians like Brits, too. In 2004, Iran stopped a few British boats and seized 8 sailors and 6 marines. They were eventually let go, but not before being paraded about blindfolded on Iranian television.

Now Tehran has scooped up another 15 British sailors and marines and Whitehall and the rest of the world is . . . well, we don’t like it one little bit, let me tell you, and we wish Tehran would stop being so mean. The UN, ever a model of moderation and subtle, nuanced diplomacy, went so far as to express its “concern,” nay, even “grave concern,” over the incident. Some scholars have noted with admiration how delicately those somber, international statesmen acted in stopping short of saying that they also “deplored” Tehran’s latest outrage. After all, that might give offense. The UN’s response reminds me of that scene in “Team America” in which the mighty Hans Blix, UN inspector, confronts Kim Jong Il, the diminutive, speech-challenged dictator of North Korea:

Hans Blix
: Mr. Il, I was supposed to be allowed to inspect your palace today, but your guards won’t let me enter certain areas.
Kim Jong Il: Hans, Hans, Hans! We’ve been frew this a dozen times. I don’t have any weapons of mass destwuction, OK Hans?
Hans Blix: Then let me look around, so I can ease the UN’s collective mind. I’m sorry, but the UN must be firm with you. Let me in, or else.
Kim Jong Il: Or else what?
Hans Blix: Or else we will be very angry with you . . . and we will write you a letter, telling you how angry we are.

Hans Blix is then dropped into a large tank of piranhas and, à la a James Bond movie, is turned into lunch. The one unbelievable moment came a minute or two later when we see Hans Blix’s spine floating by in the fish tank: after all, that was one bit of anatomy that had clearly been extracted long before Blix fell in among the fishies.

I have often thought it a pity that there nowhere exists a tank of piranhas large enough to accommodate the whole of the UN. Perhaps some enterprising engineering student, working together with a marine biologist and an anti-pollution expert, will take the problem in hand.

Meanwhile, what about the captured Brits. What will Whitehall do? What can it do? That is the really sticky question. Tony Blair warned that the crisis might go into “another phase.” What sort of phase? The British journalist Simon Heffer, writing in the London Telegraph wonders “whether it might not be time for us to get as nasty with other countries as they do with us.” Probably past time, Simon, but exactly how are you going to do that? The British navy once ruled that waves. Now it waives the rules. In 1950, the Royal Navy boasted nearly 400 ships. By 1980, it had 112. In 2004, the number was down to 44. Now, if the Labour Government has its way, another 13 to 19 ships will be mothballed. Remember the Falklands War? If the Labour Government proceeds as planned with its cuts to the navy, Britain would be physically unable to undertake such a campaign.

I believe that commentators like David Pryce-Jones and Amir Taheri are right: this entire episode is part of Tehran’s–indeed, part of radical Islam’s–cat-and-mouse game with the West. How far can they go before we respond? Overrun a US Embassy in Tehran? Apparently that’s A-OK. We’ll humiliate ourselves with a Keystone Cops “rescue” maneuver , slamming one batch of military hardware in another batch on the sands of the Persian desert. Blow up a US Marine barracks in Lebanon? We don’t like that either, but that, too, must be OK because our response was . . . Gosh, what was our response? How about bombing a US embassy here and there in Africa? We wish you wouldn’t, but if you insist on being naughty we might just have to bomb some unoccupied desert fastness with a few cruise missiles. That will show the world how tough and resolute the West is. Or the World Trade Center: may we drive a van loaded with explosives in the the parking garage underneath and blow it up? Or what about modern US warships like the USS Cole? Is it OK to steer an explosive-laden skiff alongside and detonate it? Or how about . . . well, you can complete this sorry list.

In Lewis Carroll’s great poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” we meet the title characters walking along the beach round about lunch time.

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”

The Walrus did beseech.

“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach . . .

The eldest Oyster had seen a thing or two and he declined the frolic: “But four young Oysters hurried up,/ All eager for the treat,” and

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more–

The Walrus and the Carpenter led them out a mile or so and then rested on a rock “conveniently low”: “And all the little Oysters stood / And waited in a row.”

Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,

We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,

Turning a little blue.

“After such kindness, that would be

A dismal thing to do!”

Ah, well. It was ever thus.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

Many commentators classify “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as nonsense verse. I find it full of good, hard common sense and would much prefer to see it filed under Allegory or perhaps Hortatory Injunction.

I’d be surprised, frankly, if Tehran didn’t release the Brits–eventually, after demonstrating to the world and its co-religionists the extent of Whitehall’s cravenness and lack of will. It’s good preparation for . . for what? For the next outrage, which may involve hundreds or thousands of Westerners and which may end very unpleasantly indeed.

In 1896, when the Kaiser sent Paulus Kruger, leader of the Boer Republic, a telegram congratulating him repulsing a British raid, Lord Salisbury said “This must be answered with guns.” But that was a long time ago, back when Britain had guns and wasn’t afraid of using them to preserve its freedom.


That from March of this year. Now, I think again about this sorry episode and about the fate of poor Ms. Gibbons; I think, too, about the fate of the Royal Navy. Could Great Britain credibly threaten to “answer with guns”? More and more, I fear, it is like a scene out of King Lear, with an increasingly senile and impotent Monarch raging uselessly against the humiliations of a hostile world. Consider this textbook example of aposiopesis, a rhetorical device “in which speech is broken off abruptly” for dramtic effect:

       –No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on your both,
That all the world shall — I will do such things, —
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth

Welcome home, Mr. Blix.


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