[I don't often post entire columns from another source here, but came across this column today, attempted to excerpt it with my own analysis, and was unable to do so. As usual, Mark Steyn takes what is common knowledge (to those of us who seek news beyond that including celebrities and sports figures) and weaves that knowledge into a futuristic image that we all need to step back and examine from several perspectives. We ignore his creations at our peril.]
Whatever the “realists” may say, nations talk to each other all the time. Unfortunately, when nation A opens its mouth, nation B doesn’t always get the message, no matter how loud and clear it is. Syria and Iran, for example, have subverted post-Saddam Iraq for three years now. Rather quietly at first. But, like a kid playing gangsta rap in his bedroom, if there are no complaints, you might as well crank up the volume. So Iran began openly threatening genocide against a neighboring state. And Syria had one of its opponents in Lebanon, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated.
Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?
Likewise, Russia. These days, we talk to the Bear incessantly, to the point of holding the G8 photo-op on Vladimir Putin’s turf. The old KGB man’s pals are also back in the assassination game, not just in his backyard but in London, too. As do Syria and Iran, Russia spoke loud and clear: Alexander Litvinenko, a political opponent, was poisoned by the rarest of substances and left to die a lingering death across the pages of Fleet Street’s newspapers in a very brazen and public way. Certainly as public as, say, Her Majesty The Queen making a visit to the Hermitage accompanied by President Putin and giving a speech on the renewed warmth of Anglo-Russian friendship. The British authorities, nominally charged with “solving” the murder of Mr Litvinenko (who was, after all, a British subject), wish the whole business would just go away, so they could get back to holding talks and signing joint communiqués with Mr Putin.
The question is: Which is the real snapshot of Russo-western relations? The affable buddy-buddy kibitzing between Bush and Putin at the ranch in Crawford? One President looking deep into the eyes of the other and getting “a sense of his soul” (if you’ll forgive a touch of geopolitical homoeroticism)? Or the liquidation of Moscow’s enemies on foreign soil?
And, even when we don’t get the message, plenty of third parties do. If you were a run-of-the-mill Third World basket-case what would you conclude watching the “international community” warn North Korea that there will be stern consequences if it conducts a nuclear test and, okay, even sterner super-duper-mega-consequences if it conducts a second nuclear test? If you were, say, the President of Sudan, to whom Iran has already offered its technology, you might reasonably posit that you too could go nuclear with impunity. So might Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. As for that brave band of foreign leaders who have been happy to identify themselves as American allies – the Kurds in northern Iraq, for example – that’s not looking such a desirable club to belong to. As the great Bernard Lewis said of the Baker-Scowcroft betrayal of Iraqi rebels in the first Gulf War, the lesson was plain: America is harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend.
The danger in the years ahead is a kind of malign convergence. In Mexico during stops on the National Review cruise the other day, I wandered through the teeming streets and found myself thinking that if I were the jihad strategists I’d spend some serious Saudi-Iranian walking-around money in these cities and try to convert to Islam, oh, let’s say just a modest 3-5% of Mexico’s population. That would be more than enough to add a whole new wrinkle to the “undocumented” problem.
Speaking softly – as in State Department-softly – is fine if you’re carrying the big stick. But, when your big stick is a snapped-off twig, it makes less sense. In a way, you’ve already spoken volumes. There are differences within the “Talks Now!” faction, from outright defeatists to those who figure a weak hand is better played round the poker table than in a fist fight. But for the most part “realism” is a euphemism for inertia. And too many “realists” have already accepted a nuclear North Korea, a nuclear Iran, a resurgent neo-totalitarian Russia, a reSyrianized Lebanon, a perceived American defeat in Iraq. The talks would be merely the signing ceremony.
In Britain in the Eighties, Margaret Thatcher faced a very particular problem. No matter how she and her colleagues transformed the country’s economic fortunes, too many of the citizenry were unable to rouse themselves from post-war fatalism: they had come to believe in the irreversibility of British decline to the point that, even when the decline had been reversed, they were still mired in it. Britain, you’d hear, could never make a go of it in the world; it had no choice but to throw its lot in with a European ersatz-federation profoundly incompatible with British values. One hears it still.
In America today, we face the opposite problem. After 9/11, the President told the world: You’re either with us or against us. Most of the world flipped him the bird: Some “allies”, such as the Belgians and New Zealanders, said, “Actually, we’re neither with you nor against you.” Other “allies”, such as the Saudis and Pakistanis, said, “Actually, we’re both with you and against you. What you gonna do about it?” And, when it became obvious that there was no price to be paid for obstructing American aims, the world got the message.
Yet at home too many Americans are wedded to an absurd proposition: that somehow the lone “superpower” can choose to lose yet another war and there will be no consequences, except for Bush and sundry discredited “neocons”; that no matter how America stumbles in the world it can stay rich and happy and technologically advanced even as it becomes a laughingstock in Tehran and Damascus and Pyongyang and Caracas and Moscow and on, and on, and on.
Not so. We are on the brink of a terrible tipping point.
[Mark Steyn, National Review, December 11th 2006]