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A sad thing happened this week, while Middle Israelis were understandably looking elsewhere: The US, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded publicly, has ceased to use the term "global war on terror."
On the face of it, this is but semantics. In fact, this inverted Newspeak not only reflects an embarrassing surrender to high-minded Europeans for whom that wording was too strong, it encapsulates the Obama administration's decision to tolerate foreign evil.
It used to be the other way around, with the Democrats preaching a fusion of power and morality, a notion Republicans dismissed as unrealistic. That is how Woodrow Wilson introduced the liberation diplomacy that shaped interwar Europe, while the Republicans inspired the isolationism that torpedoed America's joining the League of Nations, which was Wilson's brainchild.
Fortunately, Democratic idealism later prevailed after all, as the US began helping Britain after Germany attacked it, even though the US itself had yet to be attacked. FDR acted in the spirit of Henry Luce's classical essay, "The American Century," which was published at the time and argued that the war was America's business because it was over the ideals for which it stood and would decide whether the outer world would adopt or fight them.
Surely, once America was attacked the diplomatic choice became obvious and the moral dilemma a no-brainer. The differences between the good guys and the bad guys were as clear as the contrast between Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Goebbels.
In the postwar era, however, things became more complex, as the Truman Doctrine first looked at whether governments sided with it against the USSR, and only then at how they treated their own citizens. That is how, from the onset, Turkey was in America's good books even when its generals seized power, and that was the case with Greece's juntas, who confronted a powerful communist party.
Still, by the 1970s the US faced new moral-diplomatic dilemmas. On the one hand, the Republicans were inspired by Jeane Kirkpatrick's seminal article in Commentary magazine, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," in which she made the case for engagement with autocrats of the sort that ruled Latin America at the time, so long as they took America's side in the Cold War.
On the other hand, the Democrats were at the time taking Wilsonian gullibility to new peaks, when Jimmy Carter imposed on the shah of Iran human-rights standards he could not meet without arriving where he ended up. As it were, it was that naivete that gave the world the Islamist challenge which, besides making a fool of Carter personally, has since emerged as the entire world's number one scourge.
Kirkpatrick, though at the time still in the process of converting to Republicanism, offered the conservative reply to all this. Barack Obama and Clinton are now returning there, but in an innovative way, by blending Kirkpatrick's moral minimalism with Carter's strategic blindness.
THE FIRST sign of the new thinking in Washington was offered in Beijing, where Clinton told China's leaders that solving economic and climate problems was "more urgent" than treating human rights problems.
Though debatable in its own right, this statement would have been fair enough had it implied that the Obama administration merely wants to become the pragmatists that the Republicans once were. Alas, the Republican idea was to ignore foreign countries' domestic crimes as long as they were well behaved in the international arena. Instead, Washington is offering surrender on both the domestic and strategic fronts. This willingness to purify the impure is emerging every week in a new way, once by extending a shivering hand to Damascus and once by twisting tongues to please European postmodernists.
Yes, the Democrats are right in questioning George W. Bush's expectation that democracy sprout everywhere, simultaneously, and at the snap of foreign fingers. Yet the fact that he was naive on this moral front does not mean he was wrong on the strategic front. True, the Cold War is over, but Islamism is raging and poses a strategic enemy as formidable as the USSR was in its time.
So even if Obama now agrees with Kirkpatrick that "traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary ones," by which she alluded to people like Chilean autocrat Augusto Pinochet, this still cannot apply to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in addition to being repressive is also revolutionary, threatening the futures of Lebanon, Bahrain and Israel and inspiring terror worldwide.
OBAMA'S THANKLESS job would have been much simpler had Carter understood the Islamist scourge the way FDR understood Nazism and confronted it the way Truman stood up to communism.
Sure, there were many good excuses for Carter's inaction. America was still licking its Vietnamese wounds, the East Bloc was intact and Islamism had yet to globalize. Moreover, the Islamist threat to world peace was - how paradoxical - equally shared by Moscow; the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on Christmas eve in 1979, in other words a mere seven weeks after the Iranian takeover of the US embassy. In fact, the USSR's tunnel vision was even less excusable as its underestimation of Islamism's wrath was active, while America's was passive. Khomeini had been in power some 10 months when Soviet troops provoked the neighbor that eventually defeated the Red Army and arguably undid the USSR itself.
Even so, Carter's intuitive appeasement proved no less disastrous than the USSR's instinctive belligerency. Just like the Soviets should have been humble enough to avoid provoking the Islamists who awaited them in Kabul, the Americans should have been self-respecting enough to storm the Islamists who humiliated them in Teheran. The failure to do so was interpreted as weakness by millions of Muslims, whose fanaticism grew by the day. Still, the Carterists believed that abandoning Iran to its devices would prove as wise as the retreat from Vietnam. The fact that Iran had attacked America, and not the other way around, did not matter.
MOST OF THIS naive intuition's future victims, from Bali and Mumbai to Madrid and Manhattan, are famous. The less famous, but first, casualty of the American acceptance of Islamism's first victory was the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. Few recall this today, but the Camp David Accords were signed nearly half-a-year before the shah's downfall. In those months Teheran not only supported Arab-Israeli peace, it actually formed an axis with Cairo and Jerusalem. That alone should have had Washington fight Islamism tooth and nail from the onset, if not for Islamism's moral drawbacks then for the shah's strategic merits.
Now there is a new American leadership, a high-minded set that, like erstwhile Republicans, turns a blind eye to reactionary despots, and like holier-than-thou Democrats hassles strategic assets. Ultimately, this will likely produce more tragedy. For now, however, we might as well enjoy the farce.