The Greeks were fascinated with the need to adhere to the mean (to meson). The idea became commonplace that there was a sort of natural equilibrium in things that tended to pull events, emotions, and people themselves back to the center, away from both hubris and inaction.
I think such a classical concept of the need for balance can explain (though in ways many it would not appreciate) many of the crises of the last two years — at least far better than does the caricature of Mr. Bush and his administration as shoot-from-the-hip cowboys unfamiliar with the unnecessary requisites of polite diplomacy.
Rather than enacting a sudden and dangerous departure from American moderation, instead we are in effect correcting the prior dangerous veer away from commonsense reciprocity and mutual respect. And this reappraisal has naturally induced hysteria among those who have enjoyed or profited from the recent abnormal character of the foreign policy of the United States. Strong, but lifesaving medicine is not always welcomed by ill patients.
Take Europe, or even Canada. The problem is not really, as alleged, our sudden “unilateralism” — much less Mr. Rumsfeld’s supposedly impolitic use of terms like “Old Europe” or the shunning of hurt leaders. After all, the real gaffes and trash-talking in the recent crises mostly emanated from abroad — and in a manner not quite seen before.
Remember various Germans’ eerie evocations of Bush/Hitler, “another Caesar,” Jews in Miami and New York, clicking one’s heels, the German way, and other foul nonsense. Certain French apparatchiks and their consorts weighed in with slurs against Turkey and Eastern Europe (“end of Europe,” “foreign culture,” the need to stay “in their places,” etc.) or Israel (“sh**ty little country”). Canada’s officials chimed in with “moron,” and other assorted outbursts. In contrast, very few in the Bush administration engaged in such childish smears.
Canada’s problem with us also did not arise with the election of a Texan president, but was preexisting and largely self-created. To the north, anti-Americanism is already passé, but real pique with Canada here is novel and serious: Managing to turn the public opinion of the most powerful nation in civilization’s history against a traditional friendly neighbor is not easy.
But over the past decade or so, Canada has chosen to align itself more in spirit with the Europeans — quite properly so given their similar worldviews, which encompass a growing socialism, disarmament, and faith in multilateral institutions rather than American friendship. Reminding Canada that such a radical departure from its heritage of self-reliance and tough independence — who can ever forget the Canadian battle audacity and sacrifice in World War I and II? — must entail a like adjustment in American policy.
No, the sin of Mr. Bush & co. has little to do with real provocation, but everything to do with this generic effort to restore an equilibrium, one sadly lost under the prior four administrations over some 20 years — whether in the case of Mr. Carter’s paralysis with Teheran, Ronald Reagan’s tepid response to mass murder in Lebanon, the elder Bush’s failure to go on to Baghdad and the subsequent slaughter of helpless Shiites and Kurds, or the long litany of Clintonian appeasement. Add to that the fact that, through much of this passivity, we were either silent or shrugged in the face of the increasingly strident tones emanating from the EU and South Korea.
It is not a normal situation, after all, for a United Europe — with a vast population and economy larger than our own — to have tens of thousands of American troops on European soil to protect them from Soviet divisions that no longer exist. Or is it that we are still there to help keep internal peace (the old NATO line of “keeping Germany down”) within a continent that nevertheless professes to have evolved to a higher plane — a continent where utopians grandly announce that they have, by fiat, disavowed war?
It really makes no sense to dot the Mediterranean with bases, keep old-fashioned heavy brigades in northern Europe, and run it all out of an ankle-biting Brussels — not when those who are being protected caricature Americans as Neanderthal troublemakers useful only for helot work, such as intervening in Serbia to stop a genocide on Europe’s doorstop, or eradicating fascists in Afghanistan. Calling attention to these glaring anomalies was, I think, a moderate and much-needed act of restoring sanity — hardly the work of a firebrand.
The same is true in the situation with the perplexing South Koreans. The Bush administration was right to question why there are over 35,000 American troops on the DMZ targeted by 10,000 heavy guns — especially as we pay blackmail to neighboring butchers to behave. That strange policy too was the abnormality, not our new efforts to relocate our troops southward, apprise the South Koreans of the risks of their triangulating policies, and inform China, Japan, and South Korea that a nuclear creep was loose in their neighborhood — not ours. Such a past untenable condition called for such a restoration of sanity, and thus for a move back to the mean that was not imprudent, but long overdue.
Then we come to the miasma of the Arab world, and the hysterics about preemption, unilateralism, insensitivity, and hegemony. Where to start with a corrupt Arafat clique knee-deep in killing, or the Saudis nursed on 20 years of American appeasement of their Wahhabi hatred, or weird states like Egypt that took billions of American money and then unleashed their media on their benefactors?
Something, in fact, had gone terribly wrong the last few years — a sort of American stasis in the face of repeated assaults, whose ultimate logic was 9/11. I would perhaps chart the pathology’s birth with the Iranian hostage situation, whose precedent of appeasement in turn led to Lebanon, and then on to the murdering in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the first World Trade Center, Yemen, and so on, as bin Laden himself sometimes enumerated. Appeasement, empty rhetoric, blackmail — all that and more was the cheap substitute for resolute and sustained military action to prevent terrorists and their supporters from killing Americans. So Afghanistan and Iraq are, in fact, important steps at reminding killers and their patrons in the Middle East that it is a foolish and quite dangerous thing to attack Americans.
The problem with deterrence — apparently sometimes forgotten by our former presidents — is that it is not static, but a creature of the moment, captive to impression, and nursed on action, not talk. It must be maintained hourly and can erode or be lost with a single act of failed nerve, despite all the braggadocio of threatened measures. And, once gone, the remedies needed for its restoration are always more expensive, deadly — and controversial — than would have been its simple maintenance.
Throughout this war there have been several occasions when the administration took on some pretty hard choices — in the face of predictably shrill outcries both here and abroad — to restore American deterrence and credibility. Had our leaders failed on a single occasion, we would be now facing disaster and another 9/11, rather than the rout of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein, together with the current sobering introspection in Europe, reappraisal in Korea, and new maturity with our other allies.
First, less than a month after September 11, the Bush administration went right into Afghanistan on October 7 — a vital response taken without much military aid from our allies and with plenty of criticism from elites both here and abroad.
Second, very soon afterward, there arose cries of “quagmire” over the purportedly slow progress of the Northern Alliance. In response, the administration simply pressed on, kept to the plan, and ignored crazy trial balloons such as U.N. ceasefires, coalition governments with the Taliban, and Islamic peacekeepers.
Third, the decision to ostracize Mr. Arafat was long overdue — how can a current terrorist habitually bunk at the White House? — but it took courage nonetheless.
Fourth, Mr. Rumsfeld’s revolutionary reappraisal of bases in Europe was perhaps not pretty, but ultimately was beneficial for both them and us. When he says he is “contemplating” adjusting our “footprint,” he really does mean redeploying or withdrawing troops, not polite chitchat at Euro-conferences. He is a different sort, in other words, than the last dozen or so defense secretaries.
Fifth, the reexamination of the Korean crisis caused allies, neutrals, and enemies to grasp that the old game of bribery and Sunshine silliness was at last ending.
Sixth, the decision to attack Saddam Hussein — in the face of hysterical threats of “tens of thousands” killed, “millions of refugees,” and the Armageddon to come from the Arab Street — finally addressed the entire decade-long charade of broken agreements, no-fly zones, lying, aid to terrorists, and future security threats.
Seventh, in the face of further panic over the supposed “quagmire” and “too few troops on the ground,” we nevertheless kept with the plan and had crushed our Baathist adversaries within three weeks.
Eighth, American determination in the mess of postwar Iraq has remained steady amid the shouting about the looting of archaeological treasures, giving way to missing weapons of mass destruction as the new Watergate, leading to the present sniping about a new Vietnam. If our past flight from Beirut, Haiti, and Mogadishu is any indication, even Mr. Reagan, and certainly Mr. Clinton, would have had all the troops home after the first murders, and Iraq would now be left to stew in its own terrorist juices.
Instead, in the upcoming months — given the fact the new liberators are offering the gift of democracy, while the old murderers are offering more of the same death and mayhem — the attacks will taper off, the story about the Husseins’ whereabouts will unfold, the mystery of the missing WMD will be solved, we will navigate through the uncharted waters of Iraqi reconstruction — and, once more, the present peddlers of gloom will be refuted.
Thanks to these resolute policies, after a brief three-week war and a mere four months of occupation, the Baathists are deposed, an Iraq national council is meeting, and the Middle East is in the midst of a vast reappraisal — at the cost, so far, of 200 brave soldiers. Where critics see turmoil — chaos in Iraq, saber-rattling with Iran, and banditry in Afghanistan — there are in fact the hard birth-pangs of consensual government, and the dying of an old order of both fascism and theocracy.
Again, at any one of these junctures I think prior administrations might well have faltered, paused, or compromised — with lethal results, both for the present and future. So for all the present invective, we must keep a sense of balance about the past two years, when the tab for two decades’ worth of unresponsiveness and frequent inaction finally came due on 9/11 and on this president’s watch.
Mr. Bush is not a radical intent on creating an American Empire. Rather, he seems to me a conservative who seeks to end the radical and quite dangerous policies of the last few years that went so much against American values and responsibility, and indeed against human nature itself. In that sense, the success of this critical restoration can be monitored precisely by the angst that it now arouses from the beneficiaries of a past American gullibility.
That Mr. Bush has not always been liked through this difficult reestablishment of sanity about America’s role around the globe is lamentable, but also to be expected. Yet if he is successful in this long-term endeavor, we will have then reestablished deterrence, and our next administration will have it a little easier in maintaining rather than creating ex nihilo American reliability and respect.
Over the past two years we have been trying to return from an out-of-kilter past to the mean: to a place where terrorists do not believe it is tolerable to poach some Americans, where nations do not unleash their stealthy killers loose against us, where we cease ignoring — or paying bribes — to murderers, and where our allies resemble friends rather than enemies.