It's hard to overstate what a non-event last week's "capture" of U.S. Navy personnel who were detained in Iran for all of about 15 hours after straying into Iranian territorial waters. Information released by the Navy today underscores how routine the incident was, with the exception of the sailors being taken off the ships briefly for clumsy Iranian military propaganda purposes.
That timeline and the White House response are an example of how international relations are supposed to work in a world run by adults. Since provoking war with Iran while trying to get them to accede to the terms of an agreement to limit their nuclear program presumably is not on the agenda, we can be pretty confident that, conspiracy theories aside, the detour from international waters was either a pure accident or a simple case of young officers trying to shave some time and fuel off their route with a quick shortcut. As Ben Carson and the other GOP candidates were busy trying to turn this into Iranian Hostage Crisis 2016, the non-incident was over before they could even settle on alarmist rhetoric.
The psychology of elected officials and voices in the media that demand that the U.S. "look tough" and "stand up to" Iran, suggesting that somehow what happened is a source of enduring national shame, is both obvious and sad. Why were Iranians able to board the ships? Presumably because the Navy personnel judged correctly that their minor detour was not worth starting a bullet exchange over. Why didn't Obama stand up and start beating his chest and issuing ultimatums? Presumably because we made a mistake and that's OK. It happens. We made a very, very insignificant mistake and nobody got hurt and it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. The best way to play this isn't to escalate it, but to give Iran a good, condescending, "A propaganda video? Come on dude, that's so North Korea."
There are a lot of people in this country who appear, at least in their political views, unable to admit a mistake without being struck dead by shame and humiliation. I feel really sorry for them and the people who have to interact with them. What an exhausting, pointless waste of energy it must require to keep up that facade, to choose to saber-rattle and fight over every little thing lest one Shows Weakness in Front of the Russians. It's nothing short of amazing how much the words "I'm sorry" can simplify life, even if, as is often the case in international affairs, you aren't entirely sincere. There's nothing wrong with that. Especially when dealing with an incident so insignificant that no amount of histrionics can make anyone care about it let alone look at it as a great national crisis.