The Dynamics of Self-Help
An American has been sentenced to die, under trumped up charges, by a fanatical authoritarian foreign government. And few seem to care:
Former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, caught up in the conflict between Washington and Tehran, has been portrayed by Iran as a spy, a suspicion fueled by his prior military service and past employment with defense contractors. …Iran announced Monday its Revolutionary Court had sentenced Mr. Hekmati to death on charges including spying for the Central Intelligence Agency. U.S. officials said he didn’t work for the CIA and is being used by Tehran as a political pawn.
The idea of an anarchic international system and the need for states to help themselves is not some figment of Kenneth Waltz’s imagination. It is very real.
No multilateral mechanism is going to save Mr. Hekmati’s life. There are only two states that can impact this process: the United States, which may find a way to get him released, or the Iranians, who obviously have a great deal of choice over how exactly they wish to use Hekmati for propaganda purposes. As analysts suggest, Hekmati may be paying the price for the larger covert war over Iran—reflected in either the regime’s increased paranoia or a desire to use an American citizen as a signaling device now that the Hormuz Strait gambit has been judged by Gulf regional circles as lacking credibility.
Or, as news accounts suggest, the regime simply made a mistake after a review of Hekmati’s past background as a small-scale military and intelligence contractor, which is not unusual for many servicemen transitioning to civilian life. According to Hekmati’s relatives, he even attempted to check with Iranian officials prior to departure whether or not his background would be a problem, and entered the country after receiving a go ahead. Hence as far as we know he is an American citizen who got caught up in forces beyond his control while visiting relatives. There is little reason to suspect otherwise, but this is not the point.
The larger problem Hekmati’s case represents, however, is both simultaneously more complex and basic than Iran or covert operations. While if it is permissible, and even popular, to advocate using force to benefit Libyans, Syrians, and many other oppressed populations, why the lack of interest in helping an American citizen visiting his relatives avoid an unjust demise? This is not to say that the United States necessarily needs to level Tehran in order to get Hekmati back alive, or that there are no diplomats currently working towards his release.
But as Bernard Finel points out, foreign policy analysts raptly follow the internal politics of states that the US has little real interests in or ability to influence. We have sent troops to help pursue madmen in Africa whose exploits, while horrendous, have little to do with American national security. In 2011, calls for the US to intervene for altruistic purposes in oppressive or turbulent states became especially common as the Arab Spring convulsed the Middle East. But yet an American passport holder has just been sentenced to death by an murderous authoritarian government and few seem to be aware of his plight or see it as an anything more than a blip on the policy radar screen. What about the most basic responsibility to protect we have—the responsibility of the American government to protect its citizens from harm?
The Hekmati incident is only the most severe of a series of crises in which unsavory foreign regimes deliberately put the safety and lives of American citizens at risk for political gain and do so without suffering any serious consequences. States very actively intervene when foreign regimes threaten or harm their passport holders abroad. The United States, however, was humiliated by a gang of student radicals in 1979 that committed a breach of the most basic diplomatic norms of conduct. In the thirty years since, American citizens are frequently used as political pawns by foreign powers.
To be clear, this state of affairs is distinctly different from American citizens knowingly breaking the laws of states—however unjust we may find them—and suffering the consequences. It is about Americans being deliberately mistreated by foreign nations. Besides the invasion of Grenada, which hardly anyone unfamiliar with the context of late Cold War Latin America remembers, the US has done precious little to give foreign powers a reason to avoid 1979-type situations.
It may be argued that the era of gunboat diplomacy is over, but this raises the question of why US is apparently powerless to protect its citizens abroad but can protect—or govern—foreigners through expeditionary force of arms or whole-of-government. Anna Simons’ book makes an effective case that we have inconsistently protected our own sovereignty while attempting to perform what should rightfully be considered sovereign duties of other states. Simons rightly argues that the US has been too eager to discharge the responsibilities of sovereignty for others—in the form of expansive aid programs and third party state-building—but has been unwilling to make states take responsibility for their own actions.
The most obvious result of this policy has been the indulgence of corrupt clients who use American largesse to avoid having to face the judgment of their own countrymen. But the flipside is that Iran and other states feel that they can abuse American citizens at will without facing serious punishment. And this is not helped by the intense interest among foreign policy circles in having the United States perform the sovereign duties of other states or to do away with the concept of sovereignty altogether when cases like these raise the question of an apparently weakened American sovereignty.
There is something very wrong with a state of affairs in which local elites feel entitled to American handouts but apparently do not fear the consequences of sentencing American citizens to death through political show trials. John Quincy Adams said: “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” This is commonly interpreted as isolationist, but there is a deeper meaning inherent in this statement: when it really comes down to the wire, you are the only one that can guarantee your own right to freedom, safety, and prosperity. Adams was not advocating that the United States refrain from engaging the world, but that the government remember while doing so that it serves American citizens rather than foreigners.
Self-help is not amoral. It is a recognition that it is hard enough for governments to fulfill their most basic obligations to their citizenry without taking on additional responsibilities to others abroad. Moreover, it is a recognition that no one can and should discharge the sovereign responsibilities of a government for it, and that hoping for the opposite will yield only frustration and tears. The basic elements of American foreign policy should involve implementing policies that positively impact the health, prosperity, and above all else, safety of Americans. Perhaps Hekmati will be safely released—but it still doesn’t change the deeper problem his imprisonment and sentencing represents.