As Iran’s dismantling of much of its nuclear apparatus and negotiations for prisoner releases and drew to a close, two American riverine boats strayed into Iranian waters and were stopped by the Iranian Navy. The Americans were released after less than 24 hours.
Iran released photos of the American sailors on their knees, with their hands on their heads. Critics of the Obama administration were quick to shout “Humiliation!” Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee , and Sarah Palin issued statements using that word. Articles by Rich Lowry, Sean Davis at The Federalist, and Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute used the word. Fox News continued its coverage with the awarding of medals to Iranian sailors by Ayatollah Khamenei. It left out that word but reminded readers of the photos.
The incident proceeded about as any intrusion of armed military boats into an unfriendly country’s waters. We now know that, at that time, intensive diplomacy was proceding outside the reach of news accounts. Both sides had more important goals than a dustup over mistakes by ten sailors. The quick release of the sailors followed by announcements of the larger agreements have overshadowed the attempt to inflame the incident.
The commentary linked above claimed that the sailors, Barack Obama, or the United States were being humiliated. The release of the photos was probably an attempt at humiliation.
Humiliation exists in a situation of unequal power. The more powerful player humiliates the less powerful. At the time of the seizure, the Iranian Navy was more immediately powerful in numbers of personnel, equipment, and the fact (admitted by all sides) that the American boats were in Iranian waters. But a situation of unequal power does not necessarily add up to humiliation. That would require evoking feelings of shame in the less powerful party. The American sailors may have felt humiliated, or at least embarrassed at having made the mistakes that put them in that situation.
Although the Iranians held immediate power over the two boats, American naval power in the Persian Gulf is much greater, including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. An attack could have been launched at the Iranian base. Obama chose not to use that power, although he responded immediately by having John Kerry call Tehran. The consequences of an American attack would have been war and an end to the prisoner exchange and probably the nuclear agreement. It’s doubtful that Obama felt shamed by the incident. A blunder by ten sailors on two boats and their subsequent capture is hardly reason for an entire nation to feel humiliated, unless that blunder leads to war.
Humiliation can cause a desire for revenge or retribution. With the release of those photos, the IRGC Navy may have been trying to undercut the nuclear negotiations, which they have opposed. That move would have succeeded if the United States had responded with a revenge strike. The later awarding of honors and medals would have been a way to placate the IRGC for what it considered a lost opportunity. Iran’s Supreme Leader frequently plays both sides this way.
The quick contact by John Kerry was a move from strength. Both sides wanted the nuclear and prisoner negotiations to succeed. Both sides understood that military strength in the Gulf area lies on the side of the Americans.
Besides the power differential, humiliation depends on the humiliated party’s feeling shame. That can be countered by the refusal to feel shame. Birmingham, Alabama, police intended to humiliate Martin Luther King by jailing him. Instead, King chose to use it as a platform to discuss why other humiliations must end. All of us have had teachers or bosses who handed out potentially humiliating treatment; see “Dilbert”. Minorities and women receive an inordinate share of this behavior. Those who succeed in spite of it develop ways to defend themselves against it. Those who are not accustomed to resisting humiliation may be quicker to resort to revenge.
The theme of humiliation has run through criticism of the nuclear agreement and negotiations more generally. Reuters tells us “The US Blinked” on imposing sanctions for Iran’s ballistic missile test, which, of course, were imposed after the release of American prisoners from Iran. Avoiding humiliation is part of the inordinately aggressive foreign-policy stands being enunciated by Republican presidential candidates.
For those long subjected to attempts at humiliation, it’s impossible not to notice it. In this sense, it’s easier for those who are frequently targets of humiliation to detect the ploy and to resist it.
Given that Obama probably has experience of such things and the kind of negotiations in progress at the time the boats were seized, humiliation or the anticipation of it probably played little to no role in his decisions. That is how it should be for foreign policy. Those who would use the construct of humiliation to criticize are extending their personal feelings far beyond where they are useful.
Photo: The type of American boats that were seized.