iran missile 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The UN Security Council is moving toward imposing sanctions on Iran. The US is developing a list of potential sanctions to impose on North Korea if that country conducts a test explosion of a nuclear weapon. The number of US troops wounded in Iraq reached a two-year high last month. Syria is claiming Israel is about to attack and making threats of its own, as is Hizbullah. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh says his movement will never recognize Israel and will not be pushed out of the Palestinian Authority government.
The situation is becoming increasingly reminiscent of the late 1970s, a time when the US and the West seemed on the run, and with little notion of what to do about it. At that time, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, US-Soviet proxy wars raged in Angola and Nicaragua, a clerical regime had just taken over in Iran and the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Teheran dragged on for months.
It was in this context, with US president Jimmy Carter lamenting an American "malaise," that, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was ushered in by American voters. Americans - like Israelis in the elections of early 2001, in which Ariel Sharon beat Ehud Barak in the midst of a Palestinian terrorist offensive - felt insecure and opted for the leader whom they thought would more decisively address the threats gathering around them.
Though the sense of growing threat feels similar, the political landscape today is quite different. In the US, the sense of unease and insecurity might naturally lead voters to choose an opposition party with a more aggressive approach, but that party is already in power and is fighting an uphill battle to justify its policies.
It is a time, in short, when the West's enemies are smelling weakness and are pressing their advantage. Whether in Teheran, Pyongyang, Damascus or Gaza, radical forces are essentially saying to the West: "We don't care what you say, we don't believe your threats, and we dare you to stop us."
In 1980, the rise of a new American administration that - in conjunction with a revival of the American economy - sharply increased defense spending, changed the US approach to arms control and began speaking of consigning "the evil empire" to the "ash heap of history," began to turn the tide. By the end of that decade, the Soviet Union was indeed history and it was the West, not its enemies, that were ascendant.
What will turn the situation around now? In the US, the Bush administration is unpopular and its foreign policy is under attack. It is in any case heading for "lame duck" status in its final two years in office. In the UK, Tony Blair, a key Bush ally, is stepping down in a few months. In Israel, our government is struggling to survive the political fallout of a war widely seen to have been mismanaged, and with the diplomatic program that was its raison d'etre in shambles.
Unfortunately, global events do not fit neatly into the electoral schedules of leading democracies. Whether the West will succeed in stopping the Iranian nuclear program, or whether that program will have become unstoppable, will be determined over the coming two years. Other events as unpredicted as the recent Lebanese war are likely to ensue.
Accordingly, it falls to the current American administration, despite, or perhaps because of, its political weakness to take hold of itself and the global situation like America and Britain did in the early 1980s and Israel did in 2001. This must happen even if the Bush administration is dealt an electoral blow, as expected, in the congressional elections to be held on November 4.
Though things may seem bleak at the moment, it is important to remember that it will not necessarily take much for the West to recapture a sense of momentum against our enemies. If, for example, the US and Europe impose serious economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran in the next few months, coupled with the threat of military force if sanctions fail, the sense of inevitability surrounding the Iranian nuclear program could be broken. Whether with regard to Iran, North Korea, Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas, the West must demonstrate that it will not be intimidated and that it has the power and determination to impose its will.