There is as much relief from realists as there is disappointment from neo-Wilsonians over a perceived change in U.S. foreign policy — what Time magazine clumsily dubbed “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy.” It is true that there is now a regrettable new quietism about promoting democracy in the Middle East. And the United States also insists on multiparty talks with the ghoulish regimes in North Korea and Iran, in a fashion that purportedly seems much different from the go-it-alone caricature of 2001/2.
But think hard: Has George Bush, or the world itself, changed in the last five years?
One obvious difference from the first administration is the added nuclear component to the most recent pressing crises. Taking out the Taliban and Saddam Hussein did not involve an immediate threat of nuclear retaliation. Preempting against North Korea does run such risk — and perhaps very soon Iran will too. That requires a different strategy.
The second change from the immediate past is oil. For most of the first administration, the price of petroleum was around $20-$30 a barrel. We are now well into the era of $60-$70, and the threat of constant shortages.
This energy frailty has had two pernicious effects on U.S. foreign policy. Our allies in Europe and Japan now view almost any American initiative with Russia, the Middle East, or Latin America in terms of the potential fallout on their own energy costs and supplies.
In addition, the consuming nations are now providing a windfall of several hundred billion in extra profits to the likes of the House of Saud, the Iranian theocrats, the Gulf Sheikdoms, Hugo Chavez, and Vladimir Putin. Not only are some of these billions recycled in nefarious ways in arms purchases and terrorist subsidies, but also the intrinsic failures of theocracy, autocracy, and neo-Communism are masked by such accidental largess.
Worse still, there is now a growing new relativist standard of international behavior for roguish regimes: The degree to which a non-democratic nation has either oil or nukes — or preferably both — determines its perceived legitimacy. Any individual action the United States now undertakes may spike oil prices, and thus endanger the livelihood of its allies or neutrals while further subsidizing our enemies.
A third difference is the fading memory of September 11 as we reach the fifth anniversary of that mass murder. As the anger of the American people subsides, weariness with the counter-response grows, and the very human desire not to rock the boat permeates national life — especially when we have not had, as predicted, another 9/11. It is hard to keep reminding the American people for five years that we alone must lead the world against the terrorists and their state sponsors.
So part of Mr. Bush’s dilemma derives also from his very success. The audacious removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban — coupled with the killing of thousands of Islamic terrorists abroad, together with a revolution in security procedures at home — have combined to prevent another jihadist attack. Now in our complacence, we think our recent safety was almost a natural occurrence rather than the result of national sacrifice and ordeal that must continue. And, again, such a return to normalcy makes the lonely task of prompting reform in the Middle East seem rather unnecessary, if not irrelevant.
Fourth, the rock has already been thrown into the Middle East pond, and the ripples are still on the water. One can argue about the effects of the Iraqi democracy on the larger Middle East — the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the about-face in Libya, democratic peeps in the Gulf, or the end of the career of Dr. Khan — but the worst two governments are now gone, and the Middle East is in flux dealing with the detritus of these fallen regimes. Iraq is messy, but its chaos is no longer novel. And for all the violence, its democratic government just keeps chugging along, its enemies so far unable to derail it.
Fifth, the old lie that American bellicosity incited the Islamists has been shattered by a series of events that have had nothing to with Iraq. The French riots, the threats to Danish and Dutch artists, the plot to behead a Canadian prime minister, the Indian bombings, and on and on, have combined to educate the world. The violence reminds everyone that billions of Christians, Jews, Hindus, secularists, atheists, and modernists are hated for reasons that have almost nothing to do with U.S. efforts in Iraq. Therefore, allies are starting to renew their cooperation with us, realizing that their studied distance from America has brought them no reprieve. Moreover, the daily griping, victimization, scapegoating, and violence of the Islamic Arab world, whether directed against us in Iraq, or the Indians, Europeans, and Russians, for many has had the aggregate effect of tiring people, perhaps best characterized as a feeling like: “Forget them — they are hopeless and not worth another American soldier, dollar, or thought.”
All these considerations apparently allow — or sometimes force — the Bush administration to assume a supposedly less visible, more multilateral profile. There is one important caveat, however.
What progress we have made since 9/11 — thousands of terrorists killed, al Qaeda scattered, Europe galvanized about Islamism and sobered about the consequences of its cheap U.S. rhetoric, Iran’s nuclear antics revealed, democracy birthed in the Middle East, Palestinian radicals exposed for their fraud, the United Nations under overdue scrutiny, America much better defended at home — all that came as a result of an often unilateralist posture that risked global alienation by challenging the easy appeasement of the rest of the world. Nothing there to apologize for or change — but much accomplished to be proud of.
Of course, it is possible, and perhaps even understandable, to coast for a while and advisable to cool the rhetoric about bringing democratic change through “smoking out” and hunting down terrorists “dead or alive.” But we shouldn’t forget that the global village gets back to normal only after a Shane or Marshall Will Cane is willing to take on the outlaws alone and save those who can’t or won’t save themselves. So, remember, when, to everyone’s relief, such mavericks put down their six-shooters and ride off into the sunset, the killers often creep back into town.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.