Sunday, December 28, 2003

Two weeks ago, George W, Bush’s Christmas present to the world (if not to Democratic presidential candidates) prompted a wide array of interpretations. But, to simplify things, most of them fell between two extremes.

The one end is neatly distilled by the headline on John Podhoretz’s column on Saddam’s capture from the New York Post: “Message: America wins.”

The other end is encapsulated by our old friend Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s No. 2: “America has been defeated by our fighters despite all its military might,” he said in an audiotape broadcast on al-Jazeera last weekend. “With God’s help, we are still chasing Americans and their allies everywhere, including their homeland.” He didn’t mention Saddam’s arrest, as this is a minor event irrelevant to al Qaeda’s dazzling array of recent triumphs.

You won’t be surprised to hear I incline broadly to the “Message: America wins” end of the spectrum. What’s slightly more perplexing is the number of hitherto sane people who take the al-Zawahri line. For example, the distinguished British historian Professor Correlli Barnett, whose piece in the current issue of the Spectator is headlined “Why al Qaeda is winning.” If I were Osama, I would tuck that one away in the cuttings file. Except, of course, that these days what’s left of poor old Osama can itself be tucked away in the cuttings file.

Here, in a nutshell, is why recent trends seem to be going Mr Bush’s way rather than al-Zawahri’s: In the little more than two years since September 11, 2001, two vile dictatorships have fallen in Kabul and Baghdad, and only the other day a third, in Tripoli, has suddenly announced it is dismantling its nukes program and the Brits and Yanks are welcome to take a look over anything they fancy. A plus for President Bush’s side? Or al-Zawahri’s? You make the call.

But in between these two poles are various other points on the spectrum. At point (a), you’ll find those wise old foreign policy birds who get everything wrong but never seem to notice. That would include all those fellows who tut-tutted that the Pentagon’s announcement that France, Germany and Russia would be excluded from bidding for Iraqi reconstruction contracts was an appallingly amateurish screw-up given that Washington was about to go cap in hand to Paris, Berlin and Moscow asking them to forgive Iraq’s Saddam-accumulated debts. “Democrats seized on the episode as further evidence of Bush diplomatic blundering,” reported London’s Independent.

“Further” evidence: Lovely touch, that. But you get the gist: The Europeans would now be certain to reject any moves to forgive Iraqi debt. Chris Patten, the European Union’s external relations commissioner, called Washington’s move “politically maladroit. … It’s a triumph for Pentagon diplomacy,” said “a sarcastic Mr. Patten,” as the Guardian put it. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, pronounced: “It is not the wisest decision. You are saying that countries cannot participate in tenders and at the same time you are asking those same countries to cooperate on debt.”

But lo and behold, a couple of days later Bush emissary James Baker touched down in the capitals of Europe and, in defiance of the Guardian et al., France and Germany caved and Russia semi-caved. Perhaps they took the Pentagon frost-out as a sign the administration was serious. Or perhaps they were worried their old pal Saddam might get too talkative while in U.S. custody.

But either way, in an unsarcastic un-Chris-Patten way, it does appear “a triumph for Pentagon diplomacy.” If this is politically maladroit blundering, blunder on; crank the maladroitness meter up another notch.

Not that the administration will get any credit for it. For among the two other international groupings of Bush-disparagers are those in group (b) who argue yes, there’s good news, but no thanks to Mr. Bush; and those in group (c) who say yes, it’s all thanks to Mr. Bush, but it’s bound to turn out disastrously — the good news will prove to be bad news, if we just wait long enough.

There was an interesting example of group (b)-think at the end of the week that began with Saddam’s lice inspection. Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi threw in the towel on his WMD program — chemical, biological, nuclear, the works. Why was this? Well, according to the chaps at Reuters, it was because “segments of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] have become very concerned about Libya.” Hmm. When the IAEA starts showing “concern,” you know you’ve only got another two or three decades to fall into line or they’ll report you to the Security Council.

But make no mistake: Col. Gadhafi’s surrender definitely hasn’t anything to do with Mr. Bush, Tony Blair, the toppling of Saddam, stuff like that — no sir, don’t you believe it.

Here’s an intriguing tidbit from an interview Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave to the Spectator in September:

“I cannot say which country he was from, but someone telephoned me the other day and said, ‘I will do whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid.’ ”

Interesting. Who on Earth could Mr Berlusconi be talking about?

Col. Gadhafi is merely the latest example of what one might call trickle-down destabilization. As I wrote in early May, “You don’t invade Iraq in order to invade everywhere else, you invade Iraq so you don’t have to invade everywhere else.”

Meanwhile, in group (c) are all those who acknowledge that America has won swift victories in Afghanistan and Iraq but that they’re meddling with ancient, complex cultural forces that will come back to bite them in the butt.

Whatever gets you through the night, boys. One can’t help noticing that, despite innumerable warnings from these Western defeatists about the folly of provoking the incendiary “Arab street,” that same street is now in the third year of its deep slumber. It may be Osama is just very cunningly “lying low,” but, with each passing month, the reason he’s lying low is more and more likely to be due to an inability to get up again.

Taliban gone, Saddam gone, Col. Gadhafi retired, Osama “resting.” “Message: America wins” is as accurate a summation of the last two years as any. Whether or not you think American victory is a good thing is another matter. But a smart anti-American ought to recognize that generally things are going America’s way, and the only argument worth having is about the speed at which they’re doing so.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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