When Iran released 15 British sailors and marines held hostage last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the release an "Easter gift to the British people." The British Ministry of Defense's decision to allow the hostages to sell their stories to the media made Ahmadinejad's "gift" an unwanted gift that keeps on giving.
Monday, the Blair government reversed the policy, announcing it was under review, but the damage already was done. Other conservatives have bashed the 15 members of the British Navy and Marines for not fighting back when eight boats loaded with Iranian Revolutionary Guards surrounded their lone boat, in what the Iranians falsely claim were their waters. Not me.
As Royal Marines Capt. Chris Air explained: "The Iranians are not our enemies. We are not at war with them. By the time the true intent of the Iranians had become apparent, and we could legitimately have fought back, it was too late for action."
Besides, who wants to die on a moment's notice while starting World War III? It is, however, hard to defend the British troops' behavior as hostages. Sailor Faye Turney, the only female hostage, apologized for "obviously" being in Iranian waters. She also called for Britain to get out of Iraq. Marine Nathan Thomas Summer told Iranians, I "deeply apologize for entering your waters" -- when the Brits were in Iraqi waters.
For their part, the hostages were lined up, blindfolded, to await a mock execution. Turney feared that she would be raped.
John Nichol, an RAF navigator who was held and beaten by Iraqis after being shot down in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, told the Times of London, "Until you have been there, you have absolutely no idea."
OK, but you can have sympathy for the hostages and still know that their behavior -- even if poor training undermined their reaction -- was not worthy of reward.
To the contrary, as they were leaving, the hostages shook hands with Ahmadinejad as he joked about their "mandatory vacation." They accepted souvenirs -- goody bags of Persian sweets, pistachio nuts and vases.
The episode signaled, as Marina Hyde wrote in the Guardian, "the apparent ease with which British servicemen and women can be co-opted as propaganda tools."
As for the Ministry of Defense's decision to waive the usual rules because of these "exceptional circumstances" -- well, suffice it to say that those words must have been a kick in the teeth to families who lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buried in this national-security debate is a class issue. Bob Ayers of Chatham House, a London-based foreign-affairs think tank, noted in an e-mail: "Now 15 people from the lower rungs of the military ladder find themselves experiencing Andy Warhol's famous 15 minutes of fame -- albeit this time it is a bit longer than 15 minutes -- and decided to profit from it. Their principal crime seems to be that they are intruding on what had heretofore been the exclusive domain of the admiral, field marshal and government minister -- being paid for publishing their experiences.
"The argument that (military) personnel cannot publish is difficult to understand when the large number of factual books about the Falklands, the SAS, the Irish 'Troubles' and so on are recalled. The only difference I can see is the time delay between having the experience and publishing about it.
"Assuming that they don't compromise sensitive information, why not publish?" The answer: Because if the Blair government wants to democratize its policies as to who in the military can publish for pay, this is the wrong time to do so.
The biggest known threat to the national security of Great Britain and the United States lies among Islamic extremists who believe that Westerners always will back down in a pinch. With a possible six-figure payout for talking about folding as a hostage -- Turney's reported take -- those extremists will see a system that rewards meekness, even in the military.
Yesterday, Ahmadinejad announced he was expanding Iran's nuclear program. This time, no goody bag.