That noise you hear as you pass the crypt at St. Paul's cathedral in London is Lord Horatio Nelson spinning in his grave.
Admiral Nelson was the greatest seaman of a seafaring nation which has produced many. If he had been in command of the HMS Cornwall in the Persian Gulf last Friday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair would not now be begging the mullahs in Tehran for the release of his illegally seized sailors and marines.
"No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy," Lord Nelson said.
Lord Nelson, alas, was killed at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The captain of the HMS Cornwall is Commodore Nick Lambert, a more modern sort. He did nothing as six Iranian speedboats seized the boarding party from his ship as they were leaving the freighter they had inspected in Iraqi territorial waters.
The 14 men and one woman have been taken to Tehran, where the mullahs are threatening to try them as spies.
U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Erik Horner, executive officer of the USS Underwood, which shares patrol duty in the Shatt al Arab with the HMS Cornwall, expressed surprise that the British let their sailors and marines be taken without a fight.
"U.S. Navy rules of engagement say we not only have a right to self defense, but also an obligation to self defense," LtCdr Horner told the British newspaper the Independent. "Our reaction was 'Why didn't your guys defend themselves?'"
British rules of engagement "are very much de-escalatory, because we don't want wars starting," the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, told the BBC.
"Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were, in effect, able to be captured and taken away," he said.
Lord Nelson never met Admiral West or Commodore Lambert, of course, but he knew the type very well: "If a man consults whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain his opinion is against fighting," Lord Nelson said.
So Britain has responded to the seizure with stern words. "We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed," said Prime Minister Tony Blair. "They should not be under any doubts at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong."
But actions or in this case, inactions speak louder. Mr. Blair has a much bigger problem on his hands now than if Commodore Lambert had acted as Lord Nelson would have, and sent the Iranian gunboats to the bottom of the Shatt al Arab.
What Iran did is an act of war. What Iran is threatening to try as "spies" sailors in uniform seized on the high seas is a clear cut violation of Article 46 of the Geneva Conventions.
If you respond to such provocations only with sternly worded letters of protest, you can be sure there will be more such provocations in the future.
Why would Iran engage in such a provocation now?
First, taking hostages is what the mullahs do. When the Islamists first took control of Iran, they seized the American embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. (They were released on the day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. He'd made it clear during the campaign that he lacked Jimmy Carter's forbearance toward the Islamist regime, and the mullahs didn't want to risk testing his resolve.)
In 2004, they seized eight British sailors on a similar maritime inspection mission. (The sailors were released after three days, but not before being paraded blindfolded on Iranian tv.)
Second, the Iranians need somebody to trade. The mullahs have been embarrassed by the apparent defection of two high ranking officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and U.S. and U.K. forces have arrested five Iranian intelligence officers within Iraq since the surge began. (The CIA apparently warned the British the mullahs were planning reprisals.)
Third, the mullahs need to distract an increasingly restive Iranian public from a deteriorating economy, and the high likelihood that the economic sanctions imposed by the UN last weekend will make things worse. Tyrants frequently beat war drums in such circumstances.
Whatever the reason or reasons, a firm British response is required. The worst thing Mr. Blair could do is make some kind of trade.
"We wait anxiously to see whether this weakened and discredited Prime Minister has the necessary spine to do what is required, or whether Britain will persist in presenting its weakest aspect to a potential enemy," said the London Telegraph in an editorial Monday.