A light­weight world role?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - MARK STEYN

Ev­ery­thing is dif­fi­cult, isn’t it? In the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates’ de­bate, Illi­nois Sen. Barack Obama was asked what he per­son­ally was do­ing to save the en­vi­ron­ment and replied his fam­ily was “work­ing on” chang­ing their light bulbs.

Is this the new ver­sion of the old joke? How many sen­a­tors does it take to “work on” chang­ing a light bulb? One to pro­pose a bi­par­ti­san com­mis­sion. One to threaten to de­fund the light bulbs. One to de­mand the im­peach­ment of Ge­orge W. Bush and Dick Cheney for keep­ing us all in the dark. One to vote to pull out the first of the light bulbs by this fall with a view to get­ting them all out by the end of 2008.

On the eve of World War I, Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Ed­ward Grey said, “The lamps are go­ing out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life­time.” It is un­clear if he was propos­ing a so­lu­tion to global warm­ing. But he would be im­pressed to hear that nine decades later the lights are go­ing out all over Wash­ing­ton.

Two weeks ago, both the House and the Se­nate voted for de­feat in Iraq. That’s to say, Congress got tired of wait­ing for th­ese dead­beat in­sur­gents to get their act to­gether and in­flict some dev­as­tat­ing mil­i­tary hu­mil­i­a­tion on U.S. forces. So in­stead Amer­ica’s leg­is­la­tors have voted to man­date the cer­tainty of de­feat. They want the with­drawal of Amer­i­can forces to be­gin this Oc­to­ber, which is a faintly sur­real con­cept: Watch­ing CNN In­ter­na­tional around the world, many view­ers un­versed in Amer­ica’s con­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ments will have been puz­zled by the spec­ta­cle of a na­tion giv­ing six months’ no­tice of sur­ren­der. But the can­nier types in the pres­i­den­tial palaces will have drawn their own con­clu­sions.

For ex­am­ple, as Congress was vot­ing, Vladimir Putin an­nounced Rus­sia would with­draw from the post-Cold War ar­range­ments of the Con­ven­tional Forces in Europe Treaty in protest at Amer­i­can plans to in­stall mis­sile de­fense sys­tems on the Con­ti­nent. In the first months of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion — pre-Septem­ber 11, 2001 — this is­sue was mostly the­o­ret­i­cal. Euro­pean lead­ers couldn’t quite fig­ure out why any­one would need a sys­tem to take out in­com­ing nukes but Mr. Bush seemed hot for it and, so, you might as well be inside the sys­tem rather than out.

Six years later, Iran is go­ing nu­clear and no­body seems of a mind to stop them. So a mis­sile de­fense shield in East­ern Europe is a more prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit than it once seemed. In fact, the mul­lahs are pre­cisely the kind of fel­lows for whom the sys­tem is in­tended: small nu­clear pow­ers less sus­cep­ti­ble to con­ven­tional de­ter­rence the­ory.

There might be quite a few of th­ese a decade down the line. Re­luc­tant to find them­selves liv­ing un­der a Shia Per­sian nu- clear um­brella, the Sunni Arab dic­ta­tor­ships are said to ponder whether they might ben­e­fit from go­ing the nuke route. The Saudis and Egyp­tians could cer­tainly af­ford it very eas­ily.

So what is Vladimir Putin’s game? Well, he leads a coun­try with se­vere struc­tural de­fects (a col­lapsed birthrate for ev­ery­one ex­cept Rus­sia’s Mus­lims, a de­pop­u­lat­ing east, dis­ease-rid­den men­folk face down in the vodka) but a rel­a­tively buoy­ant econ­omy — or, to be more pre­cise, klep­toc­racy. In par­tic­u­lar, West­ern Europe in­creas­ingly de­pends on Rus­sia as an en­ergy sup­plier.

Mr. Putin cal­cu­lates that even a weak Krem­lin can make mis­chief for Amer­ica. The mis­silede­fense in­ter­cep­tors might have been ex­pressly de­signed for findu-civ­i­liza­tion Europe: You don’t have to do any­thing, you don’t have to at­tack any­one, you don’t have to be beastly and ag­gres­sive like the swag­ger­ing Texan cow­boy. You just have to go about your busi­ness and, if any­thing’s head­ing your way, the Yanks will press a but­ton and blow it to smithereens and send you a con­fir­ma­tory e-mail.

But Mr. Putin makes Con­ti­nen­tal lead­ers choose be­tween even this be­nign de­fen­sive tech­nol­ogy and re­la­tions with Rus­sia. And, given Euro­pean dis­po­si­tions, he must surely feel he has got a sport­ing chance of win­ning this one. If he does, he will in ef­fect make the world safe for Ira­nian nu­clear black­mail.

Why would he do this? Well, why wouldn’t he? As I al­ways say, if you live in Tikrit and Ra­madi, the Iraq is­sue is about Iraq. But, if you live any­where else on the planet, Iraq is about Amer­ica. In Tehran, Py­ongyang, Khartoum, Cara­cas, Bei­jing, Moscow and the South Sand­wich Is­lands, they watch Harry Reid and com­pany on the 24/7 cable chan­nels and draw their own con­clu­sions about Amer­i­can will.

The De­feat­i­crats are be­ing opportunist: they think they can cal­i­brate the pre­cise de­gree of U.S. de­feat in Me­sopotamia that will bring vic­tory for them in Ohio and Florida. Con­temptible as this is, it wouldn’t be pos­si­ble had the ad­min­is­tra­tion not lost the sup­port of many of the Amer­i­can peo­ple over this war.

The losses of U.S. troops are dev­as­tat­ing for their fam­i­lies but are his­tor­i­cally among the low­est in any con­flict fought by this na­tion or any other. So I don’t be­lieve the nightly plume of smoke over Bagh­dad on the evening news ex­plains the na­tional dis­en­chant­ment. Rather, the mis­sion as framed by Mr. Bush — help the Iraqi peo­ple build a free and stable Iraq — is sim­ply not ac­cepted by the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

On the right, be­tween the un­re­alpoli­tik “real­ists” and the “rub­ble doesn’t cause trou­ble” iso­la­tion­ists and the hit-emharder-faster crowd, the pres­i­dent has fewer and fewer tak­ers for a hun­kered-down, de­fen­sive, thank­less semi­colo­nial polic­ing op­er­a­tion. Re­gard­less of how it works on the ground, it has lim­ited ap­peal at home.

Mean­while, the left doesn’t ac­cept it be­cause, while fond of “causes,” left­ists dis­like those that re­quire mean­ing­ful ac­tion: Ask Ti­betans about the ef­fec­tive­ness of Amer­ica’s half-acen­tury “Free Ti­bet” cam­paign; or ask Dar­furis, as­sum­ing you find one still breath­ing, how the left’s latest fetishiza­tion is go­ing from their per­spec­tive: “On Sun­day, April 29, Salt Lake Saves Dar­fur in­vites the greater Salt Lake com­mu­nity of com­pas­sion to join with us as we honor the fallen and suf­fer­ing Dar­furis in a day of films, dis­cus­sion and dance with a Su­danese dance troupe.”

Mar­velous. I hope as the “Salt Lake Saves Dar­fur” cam­paign in­ten­si­fies in the decades ahead there’ll still be enough Dar­furis to man the dance troupe. It would be truer to say the greater Salt Lake com­mu­nity of com­pas­sion, like Mr. Obama with his light bulbs, is “work­ing on” sav­ing Dar­fur.

And in Khartoum, Tehran, Moscow and else­where, the world’s mis­chief-mak­ers have reached their own con­clu­sions about just how much se­ri­ous “work” Amer­ica is pre­pared to do.

Mark Steyn is the se­nior con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor for Hollinger Inc. Publi­ca­tions, se­nior North Amer­i­can colum­nist for Bri­tain’s Tele­graph Group, North Amer­i­can ed­i­tor for the Spec­ta­tor, and a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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