Multilateral Mantras

The fantasies of the old world meet the realities of the new.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

London protesters. Big bombs dropping in Iraq. More lectures about Guantanamo. Angst from the French and Russians. Kofi Annan miffed. Jimmy Carter back home writing novels. Wesley Clark alleging that America is the bully without the pulpit. Turkish crowds blaming us for a rash of fundamentalist terror. And always Bush, Bush, Bush the unilateralist. Is there no end to the calumny?

American and European intellectuals think they can explain the current furor directed at the United States. In fact, they have fashioned a standard exegesis that goes back to the last decade or so of American foreign-policy efforts. Our supposed post-9/11 unilateralism is summed up by something like this: chances lost; sympathy wasted; opportunities let slip; dialogue spurned; etc.

That is, after eight careful years of Clintonian multilateralism — characterized by deference to the U.N., consultation with the EU, and various apologies to aggrieved countries from Greece to South Africa — the United States was once again (say, by 2000?), ever so slowly, beginning to be liked in the world. Indeed, we were on the collective bus, so to speak, and supported the foundations for a new global framework that would give us racial bliss at Durban, environmental salvation at Kyoto, and international justice at The Hague.

We all wished it was true. Those who had doubts kept quiet for the most part — lest they appear as the dour and glum Reaganites who had once caricatured Jimmy Carter’s human-rights policies as naïve and conducive to subsequent hostage-taking, SS-10s, and Afghanistan.

Indeed, we are now supposed to be quite nostalgic about the old aura of multilateral harmony. Everyone from Madeline Albright to Al Gore lectures us about how we were once beloved of the Europeans and admired by the Arabs. But then the story darkens, as Bush administration boorishness, ineptness, and chauvinism forfeit all their predecessors’ hard-earned capital, the fruit of careful past diplomacy. Perhaps the hysterical slurs about “Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld” reflect the deep hurt that former officials presently feel when they travel abroad and are no longer treated with the deference of old. Their apologia “We tried to tell them” is met by their sympathetic hosts’ “Don’t worry, we know it’s them, not you.”

But how accurate — or important — is the charge of unilateralism? President Clinton never really evoked the sanction of the 190 nations of the U.N. when he quite understandably bombed in Serbia and Iraq. The EU and U.N. were not brought in on either incursion — how could they be when they had a proven record of appeasement and inaction in Serbia that had led to a quarter-million Europeans perishing and allowed almost a million Rwandans to die? Neither North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe, Libya, nor Iran seemed to care much how many went up in smoke — given that death is what they dish out to their own people all the time.

In addition, September 11 proved that all we had been doing the last eight years — a cruise missile here, a federal indictment there — was taking aspirin and bed rest for a metastasizing malignant tumor. Luck, not diplomacy or deterrence, prevented other killings besides the litany in Saudi Arabia, Africa, and Yemen. The February 1993 first bombing of the World Trade Center parking basement could have killed thousands and taken down the building nine years before its demise, while the Y2K plot to blow up civilians at the Los Angeles Airport was aborted through a freak inspection, not sustained U.S. vigilance.

So how good were the good old multilateral days? The ticking bomb of the Middle East blew up with the Intifada. Although the much-praised Oslo accords of 1993 were heralded as another triumph of collective wisdom, few at the time voiced concern that we were taking the stake out of defeated terrorists and a criminal head of state, and unleashing them to fly into what was a relatively prosperous West Bank that, as it inched toward autonomy, had greater rates of economic growth and freedom than most Arab states.

Shamed and defeated killers in Tunisia (proud allies of a defeated Saddam Hussein), proclaiming an end to terror, now landed amid lucre and subsidies in Palestine. And not surprisingly they went back to their regular ghoulishness — corruption, European bank accounts and villas, local shakedowns, and occasional lynching. More Israelis were killed in this new age of “peace” than during the prior two decades of “war.” The Israeli withdrawal from the brutality of Lebanon and the 2000 Camp David last-minute offers made a bad situation worse — again more kudos for diplomacy and multilateral talk, ominous news for unknowing hundreds who would soon be dead.

In some sense, America’s foreign policy, mutatis mutandis, was analogous to the dreamlike state of California during much of the late 1990s. Then a gubernatorial administration, through massive public spending, stealthy borrowing, and de facto extortion, was able to disguise an ongoing financial meltdown. Indeed, had Bill Simon been elected in 2000, he would still be sorting out the current financial catastrophe and thus be tarred for his bad timing. In contrast, pundits now would be praising governor-emeritus Gray Davis, sent out of office two years ago as a sober and judicious chief executive — not a snake-oil salesman whose wagon of elixirs creaked out of a poisoned town one day ahead of the posse.

So the current conspiracies that arise about Texas drawlers, Christian fundamentalists, neocon Straussians, Likud Jews, and former CEOs in charge of America derives not really from American unilateral provocation, but rather from the horrendous task of restoring some balance to an out-of-kilter world to prevent another disaster in New York and Washington.

Just consider: Before September 11, Saudi Arabia was not seen for what it in fact was — the world’s foremost treasurer of terror, with its subsidies to madrassas, ransom to al Qaeda, and billions for plausible denial in Washington — but rather as a reliable pro-Western and anticommunist oil spigot. Arafat was accepted as somewhat unsavory, but nevertheless an adherent to the new global acceptance of reason in place of fanaticism. Sadists like the al Qaedists in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq were kept down in “boxes” by cruise missiles and tens of thousands of air sorties — as if they were naughty children sent to “time out” zones.

South Korea’s massive trash-America demonstrations and promulgators of appeasement were thought to be mildly irritating — if not perhaps valuable in opening a “dialogue” with the North. We were slightly worried about what the European street and the coffeehouse intellectuals spewed forth from Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and Athens, but more or less kept quiet. At least we found such invective no real impediment to protecting the continent as usual — while it created a socialist utopia that could teach us a thing or two about the environment and quality of life.

There is no reason to believe that President Bush would necessarily have sought to change radically the status quo. Who, after all, would want to take on all that? At least he gave no hints in the campaign, other than mentioning plans to scale back on thankless humanitarian interventions.

Then came 9/11 — and the last decade’s groupspeak and apparition of multilateral “stability” simply floated away on the first breeze across lower Manhattan.

In response, during the last two years we have had to start completely over, in some ways rethinking everything from 1945 onward — including the location of and need for 171 bases in some 32 foreign countries. It isn’t easy, since millions have invested so much in the present comforting delusions — both the champions of a reassuring appeasement and enemies enraged that they are now confronted rather than bought off or ignored.

South Koreans have had to give up the idea of rewriting the Korean War as a U.S.-induced holocaust. There will be far fewer massive anti-American demonstrations calling for our exit — inasmuch as we may very well nod yes and genuinely wish the South Koreans well on the DMZ, which apparently is not as dangerous for us as the Sunni Triangle might be for them. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton probably will not be invited back by Seoul to craft peace. Even the most anti-American South Korean accepts that the shared negligence of the past has presented all of us a madman with a bomb, who pretty much thinks he has sized up weak Western democracies and likes what he sees. And it will prove hard to wean such a nuclear mass murderer off his American- and Japanese-fed grain, diesel fuel, and cash.

I don’t think we will see too many Europeans privately telling us to lay off Tehran — not when they, not us, will soon be in distance of Iran’s missiles without a “retrograde” or “wholly unnecessary” ABM deterrent. For all their triangulation and good-cop/bad-cop role-playing, a Noble Peace Prize for a courageous dissident is just not going to bring in real inspectors. Our own State Department won’t talk much anymore of “moderates” that we can “work with” in Tehran. How can we when the mullahs ape Kim Jong-Il, speaking of Muslim bombs and nuking Israel?

I wouldn’t imagine either that we will see too many more German politicians echoing the trendy slogans of the German street. Why? For the first time, too many over here have asked questions that we weren’t supposed to — but surely should have — for the last 15 years: Exactly whom or what are we protecting Germany from? Communists? Themselves? Poles? Americans, I think, can figure out a way of being engaged and not backwardly isolationist — without stationing over 100, 000 ground troops in Europe.

Perhaps the next time a German official starts in on “the German way” or the “Bush as Hitler” metaphor, some dense American from the heartland quietly watching the emperor’s parade will go agape at a naked royal and ask, “Excuse me, but why do we have thousands of troops in Germany when we have too few soldiers in Iraq?” In the new world I don’t think we are ever going to go back to “Please don’t insult us too much so we can continue to stay for another 60 years and spend billions to protect you.” And that will be good for both us and the Germans — who, in fact, really are our friends.

In the Middle East I don’t think Colin Powell is going to wait for hours on the tarmac of Damascus as Mr. Assad loiters in his palace. We are not going to blame the messenger who truthfully reports to us about the barbaric things written in the Arab press. I don’t sense that the beleaguered Turkish government — with an EU membership pending, U.S. bases under review, deadlock over Cyprus, and Istanbul smoking as the new terror haven — is going to keep energizing its Islamic fundamentalist base.

No, the once-cheery multilateral world has become a very different place after 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq — the latter being the greatest and riskiest endeavor in the last 50 years of American foreign policy. Understandably, almost everyone is invested in its failure — and will slur us as either isolationist or hegemonist, depending upon the particular ox gored.

Russia will not want to see us succeed humanely when it has failed brutally in Chechnya and profited off Saddam. Europe’s faith in multilateralism surely cannot be dashed by Anglo-American exceptionalism. Faux-moderates in the region were “moderate” only when they had a Saddam Hussein to point to and say, “At least I’m not him!” Here at home, Democrats can’t count on a bad economy, and so it must instead be a bad situation in Iraq. Professors and media pundits cannot believe the world really has descended to such a level that reason only works in tandem with force.

So if Americans in exasperation are asking “What is going on here?”, the answer is, “Almost everything.” And that is precisely why so many are so upset about so much. Remember, “multilateralism” and “unilateralism” are just concepts — only as good or bad as the people who embrace them. In 1939 a “multilateral” world — Germany, Italy, Russia, along with support from Spain, Japan, and many Eastern Europe states, and the indifference of the United States and most of the Americas — decided to carve up Poland; a “unilateral” Britain choose to become bothersome and thus resisted. Go figure the moral arithmetic between the one and the many.

We need not talk up all these new realities. No need for braggadocio at all; forget the Clintonites as they desperately try to reinvent their past laxity as diplomacy. Reassurances are preferable to threats, lip-biting to banter. The goal is to reestablish a lost deterrence, not prompt endless war. Our leaders engaged in these perilous times would do well to ignore the hysteria, smile, and praise to the heavens the old reassuring alphabetic standbys and multilateral nomenclature — the U.N., the EU, NATO, the Arab League, Oslo, Camp David, and on and on — even as they quietly press ahead on their own in crafting a safer, better future for everyone involved.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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