Reading an excerpt from Mona Charen's new book on the Cold War, one could easily get the impression that pacifist appeasers of the Soviet Union dominated the US throughout the eighties. After a cursory acknowledgement that "millions....were persuaded that [president Ronald] Reagan's view of the conflict between East and West was correct," Charen indulges in a long, gleeful evisceration of that era's liberals and their muddleheaded woolly-mindedness about the "evil empire". While not inaccurate, her description underplays the crucial context that helps explain a lot of the silliness: Reagan was the president, his suspicion of the Soviets was the majority (if not necessarily the elite) view, and soft-on-Communism liberals were comfortable drifting as far into appeasement as they did in no small part because the country's, and the government's, resolution protected them.
I am reminded of this important distinction by French ambassador Jean-David Levitte's New York Times op-ed explaining French resistance to the American drive for war against Saddam Hussein. "[F]ar and away the biggest threat to world peace and stability," he writes, is "Al Qaeda". Moreover, "Iraq is not viewed as an immediate threat. Saddam Hussein is in a box." Finally, "Europeans consider North Korea a greater threat."
Now, it would be easy to laugh at this analysis; after all, why would France, which did precious little to uproot Al Qaida from Afghanistan, has for years been among the foremost advocates of releasing Saddam Hussein from his "box", and is not about to lift a finger to defend itself or anyone else against North Korea's "threat", feel entitled to tell America which French problems to solve first?
But such indignance misses the point: European opponents of American assertiveness generally feel safe indulging in a bit of arrogant moral and strategic preening precisely because they know they can rely on the US to do what needs to be done. And if America were to abdicate its leadership role, Europe might well fill the void with a little "unilateralist" assertiveness of its own. (Consider, for instance, West Africa, where America's docile policy of non-interference in the region has led the French to respond with....military intervention.)
A year ago, writing about the war on terrorism, I described Europe as America's "tempestuous girlfriend", and argued that "US unilateralism is thus, in the end, preferable for everyone". I think my posting stands up pretty well in retrospect. Sure, Europe stamps her feet and shouts, "no, no" now--but later, after Saddam Hussein is safely disposed of, and the lights are turned down....