It's been a tough month for the British Navy. On March 7, it learned that Tony Blair's Labor government was going ahead with drastic cuts in its budget and number of ships. By this time next year, the once-vaunted Royal Navy will be about the size of the Belgian Navy, while its officers face a five-year moratorium on all promotions.
If that wasn't demoralizing enough, last Friday the Iranian Navy seized a patrol boat containing 15 British sailors and Marines, claiming they'd crossed into Iranian waters. They're now hostages and may well go on trial as spies.
The latest report is that the Britons were ready to fight off their abductors. Certainly their escorting ship, HMS Cornwall, could have blown the Iranian naval vessel out of the water. However, at the last minute the British Ministry of Defense ordered the Cornwall not to fire, and her captain and crew were forced to watch their shipmates led away into captivity.
There was a question whether the Blair government would end up leaving Britain with a navy too small to protect its shores. Now it seems to want a navy that can't even protect its own sailors.
For some time, Tony Blair has been trying to show that for all his support of President Bush, he is no warmonger. He has been a consistent "softliner" on Iran's nuclear program, supporting the Europeans' search for a diplomatic solution and repeatedly insisting that any military options be taken off the table.
Since January, the Blair government has broadcast its intentions of gutting the Royal Navy's surface fleet. At the same time, it also announced its plans for withdrawing 2,500 British troops from Iraq. The result? First, the Royal Navy is finished as a credible military force. Second, the British Army's redeployment from Basra has been widely interpreted as abandonment of the Iraq mission, rather than as moving on to Afghanistan after a job well done, as Blair insists.
And now the Iranians have hostages with which to wring more concessions from the British - including perhaps withdrawal of British vessels from the Coalition task force guarding the Persian Gulf.
The mullahs in Tehran clearly see the new pacifist trend in Britain not as a hopeful sign of future accord, but as supine surrender. Just as clearly, they have singled out Britain as the latest weak link in the Coalition fighting in Iraq and in the War on Terror.
If the Iranians can force Britain to join the other European powers on the sidelines in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan (where most NATO nations devote their time to finding excuses for not risking their soldiers' lives in combat), they will have virtually completed America's isolation from the rest of the world community. In effect, America's only reliable ally in Iraq and the War on Terror will be Australia - and a change of government there could well mean the loss of that ally, as well.
This will be a tragedy - but not for America. The United States has grown used to doing the fighting and dying the other industrialized democracies refuse to do in order to defend themselves and their interests.
Britain has been an exception. In places like Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, and in operations like Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, its help has been solid and genuine, as well as important in a symbolic sense. America always looks better when a couple of frigates flying the Royal Navy's White Ensignare side by side with those flying the Stars and Stripes. U.S. sailors also know that in a real fight, the men of the Royal Navy, which our navy men still call the "Senior Service," will never let them down.
That contribution has never been vital to America - yet it was a badge of honor for Britain. It had echoes of past glory as an empire, of course, but also of Britain's historic role as protector of a civilized and stable world order, and specifically the role of the Royal Navy. The British navy had wiped out the slave trade; it had single-handedly defied tyrants from Louis XIV and Napoleon to Hitler; and it served as midwife to the ideas of free trade and the balance of power.
Now those days are gone for good. Yet, if today's Britons thought that by shedding that historic responsibility they could buy themselves some peace of mind, the current hostage crisis has just proved them wrong.
Seventy years ago, another generation of British politicians believed that disarming themselves would help ease world tensions after World War One. Farsighted and progressive planners cut the Royal Navy by nearly two-thirds and ceased the fortification of vital naval bases like Singapore so as not to alarm other powers. In the name of international peace, Britain signed treaties formally limiting the size of its fleet, and as late as 1935 reached an accord with Adolf Hitler allowing him to build the submarine fleet that the Versailles Treaty had denied him.
Six years later, Hitler's U-boats were turned loose to harry British shipping and the Japanese stormed into Singapore, forcing the greatest mass surrender in British history.
Today, British politicians seem determined to make the same mistake. They exude the spirit not of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher but of diplomat and Labor Party stalwart Harold Nicolson, who used to sigh to friends in the dark days after France's surrender in 1940: "All we can do is lie on our backs with our paws in the air and hope that no one will stamp on our tummies."
The capture of 15 British sailors should serve as a warning. Nations cannot "opt out" of their responsibilities in the War on Terror when they feel it, like players in a pickup basketball game or cricket match.
Enemies like the mullahs and their terrorist allies recognize no time outs, no neutral ground. They see only strength and weakness, those nations they can manipulate and those they have to fear. Today they clearly feel they can pull the British lion's tail with impunity.
If the hostages are finally released unharmed, it will have a lot more to do with the presence of two American carrier groups off the Iranian coast than anything Blair is doing - and the British will have learned that what they really lost when they gave up their fleet and abandoned the fight in Iraq is their own self-respect.
Arthur Herman's latest book is "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World." His next book, on Gandhi and Churchill, is due out next year.
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