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Leading the Free World is no beauty contest

Friday, March 28, 2008 Free Headline Alerts

It is always good and necessary that any candidate for president of the U.S. reassure America’s allies – and our enemies – that he will do everything possible to collaborate with other countries in trying to build a stable and peaceful world. The reason is simple: for the moment and the foreseeable future, history has thrust on the Americans the major role given their strength in economic and ideological commitment. The president of the U.S., to rephrase President Harry Truman’s dictum on the nature of the U.S. presidency, is by history and usage the leading public figure in the world system of governance and the buck more often than not will stop at the desk in the Oval Office. But there are important caveats that must be kept in mind – if not always publicly expressed:

A leader who is also a statesman often has to pursue a course of action that is not a popular nor an easy one.

Who speaks for other nations is often as difficult to determine as it is for America’s true voice in the heat of a political campaign in the U.S.

And there will always be, apparently, the chattering classes in the U,S. who for whatever reasons – their guilt at living so well in a free society, their ideological commitment to another ideal of government than the American constitution, their simple effort to please their chic class colleagues abroad – will always join critics abroad to denigrate U.S. motives and action. [They are indeed as former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick identified them, The Blame America First Crowd.]

In what he apparently considered his seminal speech on foreign policy, candidate for President Sen. John McCain has just made a kowtow to this whole line of thinking.

It was in stark contrast, of course, to his forceful and frank reassertion of his support of a victorious outcome to the U.S.’ involvement in Iraq and in the war on terror. One has to assume that it was at least in part a gesture for reconciliation to those same bitter critics of his very stand on Iraq. For it has become a mantra among many in the U.S. and Western Europe that it was “Iraq” which blew apart a once cherished mystical and mythical meeting of the minds in the Western democracies. It never hoppened!

But there is a risk in seeking such a facile accommodation, even in a fleeting moment in a very long electoral campaign.

Very serious issues divide the democratic coalition, as they always do, real differences of strategy and tactics that could be crucial to maintaining peace and stability throughout the world. Trying to camouflage them with appeals to emotion rather than logic could be disastrous.

It was, after all, the effort to maintain cordial relations among the major powers – as well as the old U.S. dream of withdrawing from the world’s troubles behind its two ocean barriers – that led to the short and bitter policies of “appeasement” that fed Hitler and Tojo’s appetite for aggression in the 1930s. Washington had to eventually confront both at such enormous cost.

It is also well to remember that none of the decisions which helped lead to the final implosion of the Soviet Union and its threat to world peace and democracy came without discord among the Western allies. And very often it found American leadership out front and virtually alone, facing bitter criticism in the U.S., as well as in Europe, for pursuing them. That applied to the fight against German neutrality/neutralism and West Germany’s rearmament and the formation of NATO, the Truman Doctrine of standing up to Soviet penetration and aggression in Greece and Turkey, through any number of crises until the final brick was put in place [or rather removed from the Berlin Wall] with President Ronald Reagan’s missile deployment in the late 1980s.

McCain’s speechwriters – we hope it is one of those instances in which rhetoric has taken wings – is not fundamentally wrong, of course, when he says: “"Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed. We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies.”

But that portion of his speech would be taken, as it already has less than 24 hours later, by his Democratic Party opponents and many in the American body politic who quite rightly mourn the loss of blood and treasure in Iraq as endorsement of the thesis that President George W. Bush moved unilaterally and without consultation into the Iraq Adventure.

A learned observer for the AP encapsulated it almost immediately:

“It [the speech] was, in effect, a fresh acknowledgment from the Arizona senator that the United States' standing on the world stage has been tarnished and that the country has an image problem under Bush.”

That is anything but what the record would show were it to be examined in any kind of objectivity as, hopefully, it will be by future historians.

Multilateralism in spades preceded the event. Sadam Hussein had repeatedly defied UN resolutions calling on him to respect the agreements of the 1991 armistice. An effort to enforce those agreements with American and British overflights was under constant armed attack. There was the discovery after 1991 that nuclear weapon efforts had been rapidly reinitiated after the Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactior a decade earlier. The evidence, as the recent study of only a fraction of the Sadam dictatorship documents has proved, of Baghdad’s assistance to terrorist groups throughout the world was clear. But despite that evidence of his threat to peace and the vital oil exports of the Persian Gulf, America’s European allies – except for Britain’s Tony Blair – chose to ignore them and simply did not want to bite the bullet.

But, one may well argue, we are talking about the past and the effort must be to insure that there is amity in the effort of the U.S. to win allies and their cooperation in the future.

Well, and good, but a look around the world at the moment would indicate on even the most casual observation that again American leadership is being tested by the foot-dragging, to say the least, virtually the refusal for all sorts of reasons, of our allies to face up to the threats to peace and stability.

In Iran we face a regime, which however great its internal opposition and its creaking economy [despite its role as one of the world’s largest oil exporters] is set upon a path of nuclear armament. The world has learned, alas! that the semihysterical threats of fanatical rulers often must be taken at face value. And Iran threatens to destroy or intimidate all its competitors in the Middle east region [not excluding wiping out Israel] as it pursues a well advertised policy of supporting such terrorists as Hamas [crossing the Sunni-Shia “divide”] and Hisbullah [a terrorist organization with more American blood on its hands than any save Al Qaeda]. The Bush Administration has pursued a policy of “good cop, bad cop”, urging its West European allies to seek a negotiated settlement with the Tehran mullahs, while Bush has reiterated that “use of force has not been taken off the table”. But that has produced no results while the Europeans have in fact continued their lucrative commerce with Iran, keeping Tehran just off the ropes in its cesspool of mismanagement, corruption and diversion of resources to weapons and troublemaking. No amount of sweet talk among our diplomats would ignore the call for an American initiative if present rends continue.

In Afghanistan, despite the apparent clean sweep of a regime shielding terrorism by American and allied forces in the initial invasion in October 2001, the contribution of our European allies through NATO has been minimal and crippled by their restrictions. No wonder our staunch allies, the Canadians and the Australians, have threatened to withdraw their forces if further help is not forthcoming from the Europeans. When the NATO summit meets in early April in Bucharest, the Bush Administration again will not only have to take up the cudgels for more European contributions to the Afghanistan effort, but it will be balancing other crucial – and “unpopular” issues. At stake is the deployment of the beginnings of a system of anti-missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, a system, mind you, at this point largely in defense of Europe against the growing threat of missiles from Iran and pariah states such as North Korea. It would come as no surprise to a generation, now largely gone, that the missile deployment not only faces opposition in some West European quarters [again the mistaken cry that the Russian opponents have not been consulted enough] but, according to opinion polls [oh! those polls!] opposed by the public if not the governments in Warsaw and Prague. Germany, again pursuing its old siren call of a unilateral energy and commercial alliance with the Russians, toys with the tactic of limiting the preparation for the eventual NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia. And, incredibile dictum, German leadership hints at creation of that old European bugaboo, a “neutral” zone between the other Europeans and Russia – certain to become a battlefield in international wrangling as the Balkan conflicts have already shown.

In Pakistan, the Bush Administration – but with the enthusiastic approval of its usual critics – has chosen a path of direct intervention in an effort to bolster the second largest majority Muslim country in its pursuit of containment of its own terrorists, often allied with their cousins in the U.K. and Western Europe. Part and parcel of this effort is the problem of the Afghan-Pakistan border areas which have become a sanctuary for international terrorism. Managing this account is going to be a delicate and difficult policy, a conundrum for the new administration, whatever its political color. And, of course, it ties directly into Washington’s effort to build on the rapidly growing commercial relationship with India, Pakistan’s neighbor and enemy since independence, for an alliance of very ambitious proportions. That proposed alliance is at the moment in some jeopardy with a shaky governing coalition unable to move forward on a program to open U.S. nuclear and other high technology to India, despite its past refusal to formally join nonproliferation treaties and its clandestine development of nuclear weapons. The decision to forgive and forget – some American and other critics suggesting it torpedoes the effort to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation – is blocked in India by the present government’s reliance on India’s antediluvian Communist Parties for support in the parliament. Polling India might produce almost any results given the nature of its society, but it surely would reveal boisterous anti-Americanism as it always has. For the moment, India and Pakistan relations are quiescent, perhaps better than they have been for at least a decade, but the unresolved issue of Kashmir and India’s growing own dissidence in its Muslim population – larger than Pakistan – will demand decisions in Washington that surely will not be popular with many in the U.S. and as in the Subcontinent.

And then there is the whole complex of China issues. The victory of the presidential candidate of the Kuomintang/Nationalist.Party in Taiwan in late March will not unsnarl that issue. Whether Taiwan is to pass into the arms of a Chinese tyranny from its own blessed democratic state or retain its de facto independence to create a model free Chinese society – that long civilization’s first – remains the issue. At some point, Beijing may be tempted to use force: soldiers given a lot of weapons, especially in authoritarian societies, have a tendency to use them. The American commitment to prevent a military decision, undertaken by the Congress and previous Democratic as well as Republican Administrations, is likely to become increasingly unpopular. But a good deal hangs on preservation of the status quo, not only for the two Chinas but for their neighbors. Furthermore, the whole China relationship will continue to dog American policymakers. At the moment, the Tibetan repression by the Chinese presents the U.S. and its allies, Japan and Europe, and India, with a moral dilemma. Beijing is determined, it would seem, to crush the Tibetan resistance as it has before – even on the eve of the XXIX Olympiad which was to have anointed “a rising China” as a member of the family of nations in good standing. Bush’s decision to go to the Games and to resist any attempt to boycott them as a protest against China’s domestic policies and her encouragement of genocide in the Sudan is going to become an increasingly live issue in the U.S. Decisions on the issue will not lend themselves to polls, whatever the aspirations of politicians for such an answer.

The list goes on and on.

It is hardly possible to choose the major issues, much less predict those which will dominate for the new American president to attempt to unravel.

It recalls the theory of the always playful Maynard Keynes, advanced by him for why the stock market behaves as it does. Keynes said he believed a beauty contest of sorts dictated the markets. This would have people pricing shares not based on what they thought their fundamental value was, but rather based on what they think everyone else thinks their value was, or what everybody else would predict the average assessment of value was.

That is precisely why beauty contest techniques cannot, for all the hopes of the radical libertarians, be applied to the issues of war and peace.

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