Sunday, April 29, 2007


Everything's difficult, isn't it? In the Democratic presidential candidates' debate, Sen. Barack Obama was asked what he personally was doing to save the environment, and replied that his family was "working on" changing their light bulbs.

Is this the new version of the old joke? How many senators does it take to "work on" changing a light bulb? One to propose a bipartisan commission. One to threaten to de-fund the light bulbs. One to demand the impeachment of Bush and Cheney for keeping us all in the dark. One to vote to pull out the first of the light bulbs by fall of this year with a view to getting them all pulled out by the end of 2008.

In 1914, on the eve of the Great War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey observed, "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Whether he was proposing a solution to global warming is unclear. But he would be impressed to hear that nine decades later the lights are going out all over Washington.

This week, both the House and the Senate voted for defeat in Iraq. That's to say, Congress got tired of waiting for deadbeat insurgents to get their act together and inflict devastating military humiliation on U.S. forces. So America's legislators have voted to mandate the certainty of defeat. They want the withdrawal of American forces to begin this October, which is a faintly surreal concept: Watching CNN International around the world, many viewers unversed in America's constitutional arrangements will have been puzzled by the spectacle of a nation giving six months' notice of surrender. But the cannier types in the presidential palaces will have drawn their own conclusions.

For example, as Congress was voting, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would withdraw from the post-Cold War arrangements of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in protest at American plans to install missile defense systems on the Continent. In the first months of the Bush administration -- pre-9/11 -- this issue was mostly theoretical. European leaders couldn't quite figure out why anyone would need a system to take out incoming nukes but Bush seemed hot for it and, that being so, you might as well be inside the system rather than out.

Six years on, Iran is going nuclear and nobody seems minded to stop them. So a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe is a more practical benefit than it once seemed. In fact, the mullahs are precisely the kind of fellows the system's intended for: small nuclear powers less susceptible to conventional deterrence theory. There might be quite a few of these a decade down the line. Reluctant to find themselves living under a Shia Persian nuclear umbrella, the Sunni Arab dictatorships are said to be pondering whether they might benefit from going the nuke route. The Saudis and Egyptians could certainly afford it very easily.

So what's Putin's game? Well, he leads a country with severe structural defects (a collapsed birth rate for everyone except Russia's Muslims, a depopulating east, disease-ridden menfolk face down in the vodka) but a relatively buoyant economy -- or, to be more precise, kleptocracy. In particular, Western Europe is increasingly dependent on Russia as an energy supplier. Putin calculates that even a weak Kremlin can make mischief for America. The missile-defense interceptors might have been expressly designed for fin-du-civilization Europe: You don't have to do anything, you don't have to attack anyone, you don't have to be beastly and aggressive like the swaggering Texan cowboy. You just have to go about your business and, if anything's heading your way, the Yanks will press a button and blow it to smithereens and send you a confirmatory e-mail afterward. But Putin is putting Continental leaders in the position of having to choose between even this benign defensive technology and relations with Russia. And, given European dispositions, he must surely feel he's got a sporting chance of winning this one. And, if he does, he will in effect be making the world safe for Iranian nuclear blackmail.

Why would he do this? Well, why wouldn't he? As I always say, if you live in Tikrit and Ramadi, the Iraq issue is about Iraq. But, if you live anywhere else on the planet, Iraq is about America. In Tehran, Pyongyang, Khartoum, Caracas, Beijing, Moscow and the South Sandwich Islands, they watch Harry Reid & Co. on the 24/7 cable channels and draw their own conclusions about American will.

The Defeaticrats are being opportunist: They think they can calibrate the precise degree of U.S. defeat in Mesopotamia that will bring victory for them in Ohio and Florida. Contemptible as this is, it wouldn't be possible had the administration not lost the support of many of the American people over this war. The losses are devastating for the individuals' families but they are historically among the lowest in any conflict this nation or any other has fought. So I don't believe the nightly plume of smoke over Baghdad on the evening news explains the national disenchantment. Rather, the mission as framed by the president -- help the Iraqi people build a free and stable Iraq -- is simply not accepted by the American people. On the right, between the unrealpolitik "realists" and the "rubble doesn't cause trouble" isolationists and the hit-'em-harder-faster crowd, the president has fewer and fewer takers for a hunkered-down, defensive, thankless semi-colonial policing operation. Regardless of how it works on the ground, it has limited appeal at home. Meanwhile, the leftists don't accept it because, while they're fond of "causes," they dislike those that require meaningful action: Ask Tibetans about how effective half a century of America's "Free Tibet" campaign has been; or ask Darfuris, assuming you can find one still breathing, how the left's latest fetishization is going from their perspective:

"On Sunday, April 29, Salt Lake Saves Darfur invites the greater Salt Lake community of compassion to join with us as we honor the fallen and suffering Darfuris in a day of films, discussion and dance with a Sudanese dance troupe."

Marvelous. I hope as the "Salt Lake Saves Darfur" campaign intensifies in the decades ahead there'll be enough Darfuris to man the dance troupe. It would be truer to say that the greater Salt Lake community of compassion, like Sen. Obama with his light bulbs, is "working on" saving Darfur.

In Khartoum, Tehran, Moscow and elsewhere, the world's mischief-makers have reached their own conclusions about how much serious "work" America is prepared to do.