- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
It seems odd that President Obama is willing to apologize for American actions in so many instances, but not for the actual violation of an internationally-recognized border by the United States in the conduct of an espionage operation. An American drone touched down 140 miles inside Iranian territory, and the White House is refusing to apologize for our aerial invasion.
The drone crash is an open and shut case: there is nothing the RQ-170 could have been doing other than collecting intelligence. We have lots of good reasons to be collecting intelligence inside Iran; but our government committed an act of espionage, intruding clandestinely into another country, something that is illegal although widely practiced.
The president looks foolish calling for Iran to return the drone while petulantly refusing to explain our actions that resulted in being caught en flagrante delicto committing espionage. Especially given our outrage a few months ago when the U.S. traced to Iran’s Qu’uds force a bungled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
After China shot down an American spy plane near Hainan Island in 2001, the Bush Administration apologized, saying we were very sorry both for causing the death of a Chinese military pilot that had intercepted our plane, and for entering Chinese airspace. Technically, the letter was "an expression of regret," while claiming we did nothing wrong, but for all practical purposes, we apologized to China.
By not apologizing for what is a clear infraction of an (often compromised) norm of international behavior, President Obama both justifies Iran’s attempts to conduct espionage inside the U.S., and makes us look like a brutish superpower that flaunts the rules. So much for a new era of respect for international law and cooperation under President Obama. Senator Obama would surely have cited such behavior by the previous administration as one more demonstration of the arrogance making the U.S. so unpopular in the world.
It may be the drone just wandered off course from Afghanistan or elsewhere and was not intended to be over Iranian airspace. It may be we were plotting grid coordinates to target Iran’s nuclear program, which it continues in violation of its commitment in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to pursue weapons and despite numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions condemning its actions. It may be the drone was collecting radiation emissions from recent activity at know Iranian centrifuge or testing sites in support of the International Atomic and Energy Agency.
The Iranians claim to have used cyberwarfare to down the drone, a claim that is unlikely and that our explanation should also put to rest. Iran ought to be very worried that we can operate with impunity in their airspace; fueling that concern is a useful deterrent given Iranian nuclear and missile programs.
Whatever the explanation is, the president or a senior figure in the administration should actually give the explanation, both to the American people and to the world. Thomas Jefferson was right that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them."
The president should apologize. He should also use the explanation as an opportunity to review all the reasons we feel the need to collect intelligence inside Iran:
- Iran’s unrelenting march to build nuclear weapons;
- that Iran is the world’s most enthusiastic state sponsor of terrorism, including a recent effort to conduct political killings in America;
- support to Hezbollah destabilizing the government of Lebanon;
- funding and recruiting Shi’ia militia in Iraq;
- assistance to Hamas derailing progress toward peace in Palestine;
- the erratic international behavior of Iran’s leadership;
- degrading repression of its own people;
- widespread fraud in the 2009 elections — protests by Iranians were the first flowering of the so-called Arab Spring.
Why the president would be hesitant to do so in this instance, where we are clearly in the wrong, is mysterious. Perhaps the president doesn’t want to be seen apologizing to one of the world’s worst governments. Nor might he want to remind voters of his commitment to negotiate with that government, or his awkward tendency to blame both aggressor and victim by urging restraint on both sides during the election protests. Still, he should apologize… and continue conducting intelligence overflights of Iran.