On a sunny day, its cannons shining and its colors flying high, the gunboat slips into the waterway, with awe-struck natives watching from a safe distance. In the evening, the captain entertains the native chiefs at a sumptuous banquet onboard. He shows them the cannons, and describes how their firepower can wipe a native town off the map. The chiefs absorb the implicit message, and declare readiness to do what is required to keep the cannons silent.
This is how "gunboat diplomacy" worked for decades in the 19th and 20th century. The gunboat was a medium of communication, a semiological prop, used by powerful nations to persuade weaker ones not to transcend red lines. In a sense, it was an instrument of peace insofar as it persuaded putative adversaries to moderate their defiance.
Watching a second American battle group sail into the Gulf of Oman the other day, one could not help recall the days of gunboat diplomacy. Accompanied by its flotilla of warships, the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, was sailing towards the Strait of Homuz to join its sister aircraft carrier, the USS Stennis.
What is the message that the aircraft carriers are supposed to convey?
And, to whom is it addressed?
The answer to the second question, relayed by the media ad nauseum, is clear: the American "gunboat" message is destined for the Khomeinist leadership in Tehran.
The answer to the first question, however, is less clear.
For, so far no one has clearly drawn the red lines that the "natives", in this case the Khomeinists, are required to respect.
On the one hand, US officials, including President George W Bush, claim that Tehran is arming Iraqi insurgents who kill GIs. On the other, it is implied that unless there is Perry Mason style evidence, no action would be taken against Tehran.
Then there is the controversy over Iran's alleged plans to build a nuclear arsenal. We are told that a Khomeinist regime armed with the bomb would be "intolerable". But it is never clear at what point the red line is reached.
So far, the natives, watching the gunboats' ballet on television, have reacted with a mixture of boredom and derision.
The ambiguity of the American message is not the only reason why this attempt at gunboat diplomacy might not succeed.
The Khomeinist leadership is convinced that the United States' domestic political feuds would not allow Bush to cry: fire!
The Khomeinist analysis is based on two assumptions.
First, the US is in the midst of a political civil war in which the new Democrat majority would do all it can to frustrate Bush's attempt at reshaping the Middle East. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praises Democrat leaders as "wise men", and counts on them to force a premature withdrawal of American troops from the region. It is assumed that those ready do all to ensure that the US is defeated in Iraq, would not help Bush restrain the mullahs.
Ahmadinejad's second assumption is that Bush is an atypical American leader who, if slapped, would not turn the other cheek. However, Bush is already a lame duck, forced to spend more energy countering domestic foes than promoting pax Americana. All that Tehran has to do is wait another year or so, in the hope that whoever succeeds Bush will be another Jimmy Carter, Bush the father, or Bill Clinton.
In the old times, gunboat diplomacy worked because the man who sent the flotilla could use it without being second-guessed at every step. The gunboat was a symbol of power that was real because those who possessed it had the will and the courage to use it. In most cases, it was not actually used because those targeted knew that it could be used.
Today, however, the US has all the power in the world but lacks the will and courage to use it.
History is full of examples of regimes that will not, indeed cannot, be restrained until they hit something hard.
These regimes resemble rebellious teen-agers caught between childhood and maturity. They are strong enough to try bullying, but not strong enough to be restrained by the weight of power. As dictatorships, such regimes lack the domestic mechanisms of restraint available in democracies.
Most such regimes, if not all, are eventually restrained and/or destroyed by war.
The Nazi regime in Germany and its sister Fascist rule in Italy are the most notorious examples, along with the militarist shogunate in Japan.
There was also the Peronist dictatorship in Argentina that saw itself as the "second superpower" after the United States. It hit something hard when it lost a mini border war against Chile, its smaller neighbor, and never recovered.
Another example was the Nasserist regime in Egypt that would not, could not, be restrained until it hit something hard, and defeated in a war that spelled its end.
Maoism was another example. Its slow death started when China suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Soviets in border clashes along the Usuri in the 1960s.
In the 1980s, Libya, which had been on the rampage helping terror organisations across the globe for two decades, was eventually restrained when it lost the war, over the Aouzou strip against Chad, and was later bombarded by the Americans.
The Falklands defeat ended a generation of military rule in Argentina, because a bullying regime had hit something hard.
The Taliban regime in Kabul also lacked internal self-restraint mechanisms. In 2001, its leaders saw the firepower arrayed against them, but failed to get the message. What hit them was harder than what was necessary for restraint; it shattered their regime.
Saddam Hussein's regime was another example, perhaps the worst. Having hit something hard in its war against Iran and then in its attempt at annexing Kuwait, the Saddamite regime refused to be restrained, It had to be overthrown in a third war.
Over the past quarter of a century, the Khomeinist regime has had the prudence not to behave like suicidal adolescents. When faced with the risk of hitting something hard, it has always retreated. In 1988, Khomeini accepted a humiliating ceasefire with Iraq when he realized that the Americans would punish him if he refused. Ten years later, Khamenehi, decided to eat humble pie when the Taliban killed dozens of Iranians, including eight diplomats. He had no stomach for a fight against elements even madder than the mullahs.
The key question now is whether the Khomeinist regime, which has always played chess, has decided to play Russian roulette.
The perceived political weakness of the United States, and the expectation that the Democrats would seek a strategic retreat, may have persuaded the Khomeinist leadership that Ahmadinejad may be right after all: the Islamic Republic can pursue a hegemonic strategy with no fear of hitting something hard.
Ahmadinejad, reported to watch a lot of CNN, has seen the gunboats sail in. But he has also seen Nancy Pelosi, Jack Murtha, Barrack Obama, and other American luminaries such as Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Jane Fonda who would rather see Bush destroyed than the mullahs restrained. The American gunboat ballet does not impress the radicals in the ascendancy in Tehran. And that is bad news for all concerned, above all the people of the region.