Back in the 1970s, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the giants of the 20th century, gave a commencement address at Harvard. It was, I believe, the last public address he gave in America. His criticism was so dead-on that he quickly became persona non grata.
I’ve always thought that it is a permanent disgrace that this great man, whom many Russians credit with bringing down the Soviet Union, was never invited to the White House, while all sorts of two-bit communists and other poltroons have been fted and dined there.
At any rate, apropos of the current headlines, one of the criticisms he levied was that we as a country had become cowards. He made it clear that he did not mean the American people; he meant the American government and the American Establishment. He said they bullied small and weak countries and appeased the powerful. That was true then, and it’s true today.
Look, for example, at the contrast between George Bush’s rhetoric directed at North Korea and his rhetoric directed at Saddam Hussein. Saddam, he said, had been given enough chances. He had run out of time. There was no point in any more talk. Blah, blah, etc. Saddam, of course, didn’t have nuclear weapons, or even chemical or biological weapons.
With North Korea, the president says we must seek a diplomatic solution, and diplomacy, of course, takes a lot of time, etc. and so forth. Gosh, we hate to see North Korea so isolated.
What’s the difference? Saddam was weak, his regime was a toothless old hag, and Bush and his war hawks knew it. We could bully and invade him without fear. North Korea, however, is a regime with very sharp teeth. It has a fully equipped standing army of more than one million men. It has artillery wheel-to-wheel along the demilitarized zone. Even without its missiles, nuclear or conventional, war with North Korea would produce casualties in the tens of thousands, and would do it in a matter of days.
So you’re darn right Bush wants to use diplomacy, though his diplomacy is so inept that it is not likely to work. We are not going to attack North Korea or even try a "surgical strike," and North Korea knows this. It has a deterrent sufficiently strong to persuade us to let the sleeping dog lie on the Korean Peninsula.
You will notice, too, that all the tough rhetoric about Iran has suddenly quieted down. I think both the U.S. and Israel have finally realized that we have no military option with Iran. Iran is in a position to cause us unimaginable problems all over the Middle East. Our failure in Iraq and the Israelis’ failure to cower the Palestinians have reminded both countries that the Middle East is not a good place to cause trouble. It is a place where conventional forces can win tactical victories, but not strategic ones.
T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia if you prefer, noted a characteristic of the Arabs: They can be suddenly seized with an idea so passionately, he said, that they will willingly lose everything for it. That’s all the explanation you need for suicide bombers. There is a line in their psyche that Westerners would do well not to cross.
At any rate, our government and our Establishment remain as cowardly as they were in the 1970s. Look at the great military "triumphs" in recent years — invading Panama and Grenada, bombing Libya and Serbia, fighting two wars with Iraq. Any general who wanted a triumphal procession in Rome after victories that petty would have been limited to a single cart pulled by a donkey.
Probably, we don’t have a real peace movement in this country because one isn’t needed. We’re not going to fight anybody who has half a chance of drawing real blood. We are never going to launch a preventative war against North Korea or Iran, and God knows not against China or Russia. Perhaps, if Bush ever extricates himself from Iraq and Afghanistan, we might have another go at Somalia.
We are, just as Solzhenitsyn said, the bully of weak countries and an appeaser of strong ones.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.