Recently Iranian patrol boats harassed American warships. As usual, the American military showed a great deal of restraint and did not destroy the patrol boats. Such destruction would have been justified-the Iranian craft acted in a threatening manner and even made threats over the radio. This situation raises the question of how the United States should respond to Iranian provocations.
On one hand, there is much to be said for exercising restraint and resorting to violence. From a moral standpoint, it is generally preferable to avoid killing people. From a practical standpoint, an American use of force could play into Iranian hands by making the United States appear as a bully and an aggressor.
On the other hand, there is also much to be said for responding to such provocations with force. First, tolerating such threats and instigation is likely to encourage further incidents. It seems likely that Iran is testing American resolve and that they will keep escalating until either they attack American ships or American ships are forced to open fire. The longer America waits and hesitates, the worse the incident will probably be when it finally occurs. If the United States quickly responds with legitimate force to such provocations, this will be an incident-but it will be an incident that could be used to send a clear message to Iran and thus perhaps prevent a worse incident in the future.
Second, permitting Iran to get away with such harassment serves to make America appear weak in the eyes of the world. Iran has already humbled us before and their leaders probably regard America as still being weak. As such, they will push America as far as they can because they believe we will not respond. Ironically, by avoiding violence in these incidents, the United States will probably encourage even greater violence. After all, people are far more reluctant to attack those who respond with decisive action and more likely to attack those who show hesitation and weakness.
To use an analogy, if you are being harassed by a wild beast, the way to prevent it from attacking you is to cause that beast to experience fear and pain whenever it acts in that way. If it persists in such behavior, then destruction might be your only option.
This is not to say that Iran is a wild beast. The Iranians are people (just like us) and their leaders are somewhat rational (just like our leaders). It would be best to be able to convince them that provoking America and harassing our ships is not in their best interest. Sadly, doing this might require sinking some of their patrol boats.