December 05, 2009, 7:00 a.m.
The Unrealistic Realist
Leader of the free world? Not Obamas bag.
By Mark Steyn
If you happen to live in Kabul or Jalalabad, Ghurian or Kandahar, then a U.S. presidential speech about Afghanistan is, indeed, about Afghanistan. If you live anywhere else on the planet, a U.S. presidential speech about Afghanistan is really about America — about American will, American purpose, American energy. How quickly the bright new dawn fades to the gray morning after. In Europe, the long awaited unveiling of this most thoughtful of presidents’ deliberations got mixed reviews — some bad, some brutal. Der Spiegel called it “half-hearted,” the Guardian called it “desperate.” And those are his friends.
You could watch the great orator’s listless, tentative performance with the sound down and get the basic message: I don’t need this in my life right now. If you read the text, it made even less sense. There’s something for everyone: A surge! . . . and a withdrawal. He’s agreed to surge for a bit, but only in preparation for a de-surge in 18 months’ time. I said on the radio that the speech reminded me of the English nursery rhyme:
The Grand Old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
The Grand Young Duke of Hope has 30,000 men. He’ll march them up the Khyber Pass but he’ll march them down again in July 2011. If you’re some village headman who’s been making nice to the Americans, the Taliban have a whole new pitch for you: In a year and a half, the Yanks are going. But we’ll still be here.
“Our goal in war,” wrote Basil Liddell Hart, the great strategist of armored warfare, “can only be attained by the subjugation of the opposing will.” In other words, the object of war is not to destroy the enemy’s tanks but the enemy’s will. That goes treble if, like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, he hasn’t got any tanks in the first place. So what do you think Obama’s speech did for the enemy’s will? He basically told ’em: We can only stick another 19 months, so all you gotta do is hang in there for 20. And in an astonishingly vulgar line even by the standards of this White House’s crass speechwriters he justified his announcement of an exit date by saying it was “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” Or, as Frank Sinatra once observed, “It’s very nice to go trav’ling/But it’s so much nicer . . . to come home”:
“It’s very nice to just wander the camel route to Iraq . . . but it’s so much nicer, yes it’s oh so nice to wander back.”
As I said, Obama’s speech is only about Afghanistan if you’re in Afghanistan. If you’re in Moscow or Tehran, Pyongyang or Caracas, it’s about America. And what it told them is that, if you’re a local strongman with regional ambitions, or a rogue state going nuclear, or a mischief-making kleptocracy dusting off old tsarist dreams, this president is not going to be pressing your reset button. Strange how an allegedly compelling speaker is unable to fake even perfunctory determination and resilience. Strange, too, how all the sophisticated nuances of post-Bush foreign-policy “realism” seem so unreal when you’re up there trying to sell them as a coherent strategy. Go back half a decade to when the administration was threatening to shove democracy down the throats of every two-bit basket case whether they want it or not. Democratizing the planet is, in a Council of Foreign Relations sense, “unrealistic,” but talking it up is a very realistic way of messing with the dictators’ heads. A pipsqueak like Boy Assad sleeps far more soundly today than he did back when he thought Bush meant it, and so did the demonstrators threatening his local enforcers in Lebanon.
As for Assad’s friends in Tehran, you wonder if they’re not now flouting “world opinion” merely to see how ever more watery and qualified the threats from Washington get. The tireless Anne Bayefsky reported this week that the administration’s latest response to Iran’s nuclear provocations is to “start shifting our focus to the track of pressure.” It’s a good thing the diplomatic cable is a mostly metaphorical concept these days because, priced per word, Washington’s are getting expensive. Starting to shift our focus to the track of pressure isn’t the same as “pressure.” Nor is it even a first step on “the track of pressure.” Nor is it even a commitment to “focus” on “the track of pressure.” But it does represent a clear start to shifting the administration’s focus from whatever it’s focusing on right now to focusing on the possibility of shifting its focus to the track of pressure with the possible goal, once it’s focused on shifting to the track of pressure, of eventually applying some. Not now. Not next month. But maybe at some point sometime, once we’ve figured out what meaningless gestures the Russians and Chinese would agree not to veto . . .
Like Europe, the Obama administration’s “realists” have decided that, if the alternative is summoning up the will to prevent a nuclear Iran, it’s easier to live with it. The realpolitik crowd’s biggest turn-on among their many peculiar fetishes is “stability,” yet they’re stringing along with what will be the single biggest destabilizing factor in geopolitics in a generation. Iran’s president may be a millennial crackpot, but he’s thinking more realistically than the “realists.” If you can bulldoze your way into the nuclear club without paying a price, why not go for it? Pakistan had to do it quietly, in the shadows. Iran’s done it brazenly, daring the world to stop her. We didn’t — notwithstanding that the Islamic Republic has a 30-year track record of saying what it means and then doing it. If you were ever going to hold the nuclear line, this is the place to do it. And the fact that we didn’t is a huge victory for the mullahs long before the first nukes are ready to fly.
One of the most interesting developments in recent months have been the emerging alliances of convenience between Iran and its clients, on the one hand, and the likes of Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela on the other. Some of this is simple mischief-making, but, in the vacuum of the Hopeychange, a lot of it shows a shrewd strategic calculation. A nuclear Tehran, for example, serves Moscow’s interest in promoting itself as a guarantor of Eastern European “security.” It’s one of the oldest of protection rackets: You need me to protect you from my psycho friend. For their part, the Sunni Arab dictatorships will soon face the choice of accepting de facto Persian regional hegemony or embarking on their own nuclearization. As for Israel, they’ll either be living under the ever-present threat of annihilation. Or they’ll be dead.
Whatever your view of this scenario, “stability” doesn’t seem to cover it. In his speech, the so-called “leader of the free world” all but physically recoiled from the job description. Sorry about that. Not his bag. In the more toxic presidential palaces, you would have to be awfully virtous not to take advantage of such a man. And soon.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is author of America Alone. © 2009 Mark Steyn