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American Zen
Finessing our supposed friends and enemies.


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Victor Davis Hanson

While the world debated whether an American guard at Guantanamo really flushed a Koran down a toilet, Robert Mugabe may have bulldozed the homes of 1.5 million Zimbabweans.

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Few seem to have cared.

To do so would be a messy, complicated thing–lecturing a black third-world leader to stop tormenting his own poor; pleading with other African states not to allow the genesis of another Rwanda; and, probably, being embarrassed by someone who doesn’t give a hoot what a Western elite liberal says.

Mao, whose minions killed somewhere between 40 and 50 million, is still popular in China. That Communist country is deemed by many Western allies as less of a threat than the United States and its elected president, who routinely appears with a Hitler-moustache in European demonstrations.

The new general rule: Global morality is established by the degree the United States can be blamed. Millions of lives lost, vast corruption, thousands of refugees–all that can’t quite equate with a U.S. soldier showing insensitivity or an American detention center with mere doctors, ethnic food, and religious accommodations.

All this is not mere theater anymore, but serious stuff, since we are at war with thousands of troops in harm’s way counting on our support. America should wake up to this near-religious hatred–unless it is so far gone itself that it really believes the arguments of silly university-press books about our own pathologies and pernicious “empire.”

So how does the United States navigate nimbly between its weariness with the thankless role of a superpower and the dangers of a nostalgic isolationism? We need to find a sort of Zen-like philosophical balance that brings both some maturity to our pampered critics and psychic relief to ourselves, without endangering our own security or abandoning our true allies–while in the middle of a war and a polarized electorate here at home.

If Kofi Annan, who was in charge when U.N. peacekeepers committed sex crimes and Oil-for-Food dwarfed Enron’s mess, really believes the U.S. acted illegally in Iraq, then he should petition to remove the U.N. headquarters to a more legal and civilized place, say Paris or the Hague. The U.S. should offer our genuine regrets while shrugging that we are not quite up to the moral fiber of the General Assembly or its Commission of Human Rights, thus encouraging such a relocation.

In matters that directly affect Europe–such as worries about being in nuclear range of Teheran without a missile defense, the still-simmering hatred in the Balkans, and the new tensions among EU members–we should really defer to its collective wisdom and back step. Again, we need not sulk, but go with the flow and extend genuine hopes for the success of the EU rapid-deployment forces and a more confident Germany to shoulder its “historic” responsibilities in the wake of the departure of U.S. troops.

Korea is a perfect opportunity for our new Zen-like approach. With an army of over 600,000 and an economy 25 times larger than the North’s, why should the South Koreans be pushed to do what they say only we wish? Much of the population already believes the United States, not North Korea, is the real problem.

Our concerns are more with Taiwan and Japan. The South Koreans should be allowed to go forward with their vaunted reunification or closer ties with a benevolent China. We can nod yes to every Sunshine proposal and then very quietly start a sort of relay system: 5,000 troops down to Pusan, then 5,000 troops home, repeated on a bi-monthly basis until they are all off the DMZ–or South Korea publicly calls for renewed American ties.

There is no historical precedent for our present Orwellian situation of stationing troops 7,000 miles away, between two belligerents, when our own ally insists that we are as much a problem as the purported enemy.

We once learned from the Philippines that the sky did not fall on us or it when we said goodbye; the only unforeseen consequence was the tens of thousands of Filipinos who wished to leave along with us. Shutting down all but one base in Greece was a good idea. The realization that the remaining one in Crete could go at any time brings sobriety to the relationship. Most Americans would prefer, if need be, a base in Kurdistan than in present-day Turkey.

Rather than worry about the supposed new unpopularity of the United States from Canada to France, or constantly badger supposed allies to at least be neutrals, we should very gently strengthen our alliances with nations that are self-confident and without neuroses of various sorts. That would mean to accept that an ankle-biting Belgium, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Mexico, or Turkey has a perfect right as a neutral to distrust the United States and craft its own independent path.

If they all see statism, socialism, and big government as the better solutions to their own problems, or Islamic fascism as largely an American bogeyman, again more power to them all. In the meantime, we should begin to draw closer to true allies–a Japan, India, Australia, Britain, a very few Eastern and Western European countries, Taiwan, and Israel–who agree that the world is a scary, often crazy place, with the United States far better and more reliable than the alternatives.

When future crises arise outside the orbit of our own bilateral arrangements with real allies, we should bring matters before the U.N. or ask for EU leadership. Indeed, we can see the seeds of such a policy germinating already. The United States seems willing to act in Darfur–when a utopian Europe acts first. Condoleezza Rice gives an honest, blunt speech to the Egyptians about the need for reform (which, if it falls on deaf ears, should be followed by a staggered cut-back in American aid and military assistance). We wish the Europeans well with Iran, but should worry only whether its missiles pose a threat to our genuine friends, and let others sort our their own perceptions of risks.

There are dangers in such a policy. Cyprus, the Aegean, Iran, the Korean DMZ, even Western Europe could all heat up. But the present course is even more untenable, since the United States alone prods the Middle East for democratic reform, protects South Korea, subsidizes through illegal immigration the failed state of Mexico, still garrisons Europe, and warns about a rising, energy-hungry China–and is mostly caricatured by nominal allies for its efforts.

Policy experts are, of course, right to sigh that being unloved is the perennial wage of the superpower that must be mature enough to ignore it. But in a democracy, the voters need some assurance that such efforts are worth it, and that satisfaction is now sorely lacking.

As most parents know, sometimes the more you indulge an adult child still at home, the worse it is in the long run for both parties. We are not talking of isolationism or running from our post-bellum commitments to foster democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan–only very adroitly, without rhetoric or provocation, to distinguish friends from enemies and neutrals. Indeed, lately an Afghan Karzai or Iraqi Jaafari sounds a lot more understanding of the United States than does a Schroeder or Chirac. So mostly on our own we must press the war to its conclusion against the anti-democratic jihadists and forget any hope that the U.N. or old Europe will do much of anything substantial–other than getting psychological satisfaction from our occasional setbacks.

To establish such a muscular independence and let our former dependents and erstwhile allies get a life, or at least what they wish for, the United States will have to embrace three broad goals that should be the centerpiece of our foreign policy. We need increased defense spending, especially in transport, mobile forces, missile defense, and carriers that both require as little dependence as possible on foreign basing and provide maximum protection for the U.S. mainland.

Second, we must find a middle path to energy independence that embraces conservation, nuclear power, more exploration, alternative fuels, coal–anything other than sending billions more to god-forsaken regimes abroad that will only recycle those easy dollars in ways to weaken or destroy us as they deny that’s what they’re doing.

Finally, we must seek similar financial independence, and get our annual deficits and national debts under reasonable control to ensure immunity from creditors who increasingly are turning hostile.

The American people are way ahead of our leaders. Most outside of New York and Washington shrug when they read of the latest anti-American poll or well-heeled elite condemnation, and wish only to move on.

When we do, we will be pleasantly surprised at how it enjoyable it is to be missed.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.



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