When interests meet ideals in the arena of states, ideals lose out. How shall we count the ways? In recent times, there were Somalia, Rwanda and Darfur—the massacres and the ethnic cleansing dwarfing anything happening in Syria or, last summer, in Libya. In more ancient history, the world allowed Japan to grab Manchuria and wipe out Nanking. Mussolini used poison gas to conquer Abyssinia while the League of Nations postured and then fell apart. The U.S. wouldn't even bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, the reasons put forward being: We need the ordinance for the war against the Germans.
When the Spanish-American War of 1898 ended with a victory for the United States, John Hay, U.S. ambassador in London, felt moved to celebrate. In a letter to Teddy Roosevelt, he described it as a war “begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by the fortune which loves the brave.” It was, in short, “a splendid little war.” The fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya has inclined many contemporary commentators to similarly effusive bursts of cheer. But does the war in Libya deserve all the praise being bestowed upon it?
This is no time for gloating, neither for Americans nor for Europeans. For both sides are in deep economic trouble, only in different ways. The U.S. runs the worst deficit (as share of GDP) since World War II, and yet Keynesianism to the max won’t budge the unemployment rate—pace Professors Krugman and Stiglitz. What does fall is the dollar and the price of real estate, a double-whammy if ever there was one. The euro, meanwhile, may be rising, at least against the greenback, but the common currency, now ten years old, is about as stable as was Confederate script back in the Civil War.
Who is the forty-fourth president of the United States? After two-and-a-half years, we should have a pretty good idea. But we still don’t. Barack Obama remains a canvas for the mind—a wondrous, vexing projection surface. He is a rock star and redeemer to his devotees, and a left-wing Darth Vader to his enemies. Yet, above all, he is a man of too many qualities; take your pick. Or take his vaunted speech last week on North Africa and the Middle East.
When Casablanca’s corrupt police captain Louis Renault closes down Rick’s Bar Américain to please Major Strasser, he huffs: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” A second later, the croupier hands him a pile of money: “Your winnings, sir.” It took the West and the Rest 42 years to be shocked by what has been happening in Muammar’s Café Libyien. And it wasn’t gambling. Now, it’s no more U.N. Human Rights Council for Qaddafi. Now, the International Criminal Court is investigating. Now, the E.U. is cutting off arms supplies and freezing bank accounts.
Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back.
How to explain the Tunisian revolution? By consulting Samuel Huntington—not the Huntington of Clash of Civilizations fame, but the author of The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, published in 1991. His model is too complex to be laid out here in all of its subtleties.
The most durable myth in the Middle East is: "It's Palestine, stupid." It lies at the heart of Barack Obama's Middle East diplomacy, which is why the president has been pummeling the Israelis and pushing the Palestinians to resume talks. According to this myth, the most urgent problem is not the Iranian bomb or Syrian ambitions. It is not Egypt, once an anchor of stability and now slipping into precarious irrelevance. It is not Iraq, which is tottering between occupation and anarchy. It is not Al Qaeda in Yemen, the return of the Taliban, or the ticking time bomb that is Pakistan.
During the student revolt of the 1960s, an historic Italian poster proclaimed “La lotta continua”—or, the struggle will go on. Today, it is not students versus state, but economists versus economists. In this corner are the neo- or paleo-Keynesians; in the other are the gainsayers united not by dogma, but by doubt. The latter’s short message: Obama, Summers, Krugman et al. are wrong; stimulus spending doesn’t work. Some in the “Forget Keynes Camp” have run complex regressions, while others have looked at state-by-state statistics to buttress the point. But you don’t need to be a stat whiz.
No soldier wants to be the last one to die in a war, goes the old saw. In Afghanistan, make that: No coalition member wants to be the last one to quit. And so, competitive withdrawal has practically begun. According to President Obama, the United States will start drawing down next year. Canada is preparing to exit in 2011. Poland is talking complete withdrawal by 2012. Britain wants to end it all by 2015. This is no way to win. It’s like a trainer announcing in round three that he will throw in the towel in round six.