Five Years On
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One way to measure how the world has changed in these last five years is to consider the extraordinary address to his nation by General Musharraf on September 19th 2001. Pakistan was one of just three countries in the world (along with “our friends the Saudis” and the United Arab Emirates) to recognize the Taliban — and, given that the Pakistanis had helped create and maintain them, they were pretty easy to recognize. President Bush, you’ll recall, had declared that you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists — which posed a particular problem for Musharraf: He was with us but everyone else in his country was with the terrorists, including his armed forces, his intelligence services, the media, and a gazillion and one crazy imams.
Nonetheless, with American action against Afghanistan on the horizon, he went on TV that night and told the Pakistani people that this was the gravest threat to the country’s existence in over 30 years. He added that he was doing everything to ensure his brothers in the Taliban didn’t “suffer,” and that he’d asked Washington to provide some evidence that this bin Laden chap had anything to do with the attacks but that so far they’d declined to show him any. Then he cited the Charter of Medina (which the Prophet Muhammad signed after an earlier spot of bother) as an attempt to justify providing assistance to the infidel, and said he’d had no choice but to offer the Americans use of Pakistan’s airspace, intelligence networks and other logistical support.
He paused for applause, and after the world’s all-time record volume of crickets chirping, said thank you and goodnight.
That must have been quite the phone call he’d got from Washington a day or two earlier. And all within a week of September 11th. You may remember during the 2000 campaign an enterprising journalist sprung on Gov. Bush a sudden pop quiz of world leaders. Bush, invited to name the leader of Pakistan, was unable to. But so what? In the third week of September 2001, the correct answer to “Who’s General Musharraf?” was “Whoever I want him to be.” And, if Musharraf didn’t want to play ball, he’d wind up as the answer to “Who was leader of Pakistan until last week?”
Do you get the feeling Washington’s not making phone calls like that anymore?
If you go back to September 2001, it’s amazing how much the Administration made happen in just a short space of time: for example, within days it had secured agreement with the Russians on using military bases in former Soviet Central Asia for intervention in Afghanistan. That, too, must have been quite a phone call. Moscow surely knew that any successful Afghan expedition would only cast their own failures there in an even worse light — especially if the Americans did it out of the Russians’ old bases. And yet it happened.
Five years on, the US seems to be back in the quagmire of perpetual interminable UN-brokered EU-led multilateral dithering, on Iran and much else. The Administration that turned Musharraf in nothing flat now offers carrots to Ahmadinejad. After the Taliban fell, the region’s autocrats and dictators wondered: Who’s next? Now they figure it’s a pretty safe bet that nobody is.
What’s the difference between September 2001 and now? It’s not that anyone “liked” America or that, as the Democrats like to suggest, the country had the world’s “sympathy.” Pakistani generals and the Kremlin don’t cave to your demands because they “sympathize.” They go along because you’ve succeeded in impressing upon them that they’ve no choice. Musharraf and co weren’t scared by America’s power but by the fact that America, in the rubble of 9/11, had belatedly found the will to use that power. It is notionally at least as powerful today, but in terms of will we’re back to September 10th: Nobody thinks America is prepared to use its power. And so Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad and wannabe “strong horses” like Baby Assad cock their snooks with impunity.
I happened to be in the Australian Parliament for Question Time last week. The matter of Iraq came up, and the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, thwacked the subject across the floor and over the opposition benches in a magnificent bravura display of political confidence culminating with the gleefully low jibe that “the Leader of the Opposition’s constant companion is the white flag.” The Iraq war is unpopular in Australia, as it is in America and in Britain. But the Aussie government is happy for the opposition to bring up the subject as often as they want because Mr. Downer and his Prime Minister understand very clearly that wanting to “cut and run” is even more unpopular. So in the broader narrative it’s a political plus for them: Unlike Bush and Blair, they’ve succeeded in making the issue not whether the nation should have gone to war but whether the nation should lose the war.
That’s not just good politics, but it’s actually the heart of the question. Of course, if Bush sneered that John Kerry and Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi’s constant companion is the white flag, they’d huff about how dare he question their patriotism. But, if you can’t question their patriotism when they want to lose a war, when can you? At one level, the issue is the same as it was on September 11th: American will and national purpose. But the reality is that it’s worse than that — for (as Israel is also learning) to begin something and be unable to stick with it to the finish is far more damaging to your reputation than if you’d never begun it in the first place. Nitwit Democrats think anything that can be passed off as a failure in Iraq will somehow diminish only Bush and the neocons. In reality — a concept with which Democrats seem only dimly acquainted — it would diminish the nation, and all but certainly end the American moment. In late September 2001 the administration succeeded in teaching a critical lesson to tough hombres like Musharraf and Putin: In a scary world, America can be scarier. But it’s all a long time ago now.
© 2006 Mark Steyn