"He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that's an earthquake."
—Arthur Miller, "Death of a Salesman"
President William Howard Taft understood how political cant can bewitch the speaker's mind. Listening to an aide natter on about "the machinery of government," Taft murmured, "The young man really thinks it's a machine." The current president's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, was on Sunday television recently explaining why she thinks Iran, now several decades into its pursuit of nuclear weapons and close to consummation, might succumb to the siren song of sweet reason and retreat from success. Doing so, she said, would enable Iran "to be a responsible member of the international community"—perhaps not the highest priority for a regime that denies the Holocaust happened, and vows to complete it—and "enter the community of nations." Otherwise Iran will face "the full force of the international community."
Rice really thinks there is a community out there. To believe that is to believe, as liberals do, that harmony is humanity's natural condition, so discord is a remediable defect in arrangements.
Regarding North Korea's missile launch, Rice was very stern. She said the U.N. Security Council would "meet," and there would be "consultation with our partners," who "all need to come together" and "add to" the 2006 U.N. resolution that North Korea had just disregarded, the one that demanded a halt to future missile-related activity, including launches. The Security Council met. It could not even bring itself to say North Korea's launch had violated the resolution against launches.
In the 1950s, conservatives vowed to "roll back" the Iron Curtain. Rice spoke of "ensuring that we roll back" North Korea's nuclear program. She took heart from what she called "some serious dismantlement" of North Korea's principal reactor. Actually, the reactor was not dismantled but disabled, an easily reversible act. Fuel rods were removed and the cooling tower was destroyed. The rods can be reinserted. The reactor can operate without the cooling tower—warm water would be released, which might kill lots of wildlife, but, then, the regime kills lots of North Koreans, even though that supposedly causes frowns to crease the faces of the supposed community of nations.
Perhaps Rice thinks the mere existence of the U.N. proves the existence of an international community. If so, she should spend some communitarian time with our allies the Saudis. The Obama administration has decided to join them as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which the Bush administration boycotted because it includes despotic regimes that are ludicrous auditors of other nations' respect for human rights.
An unmarried 23-year-old Saudi woman became pregnant when abducted and gang-raped. She was convicted of adultery and sentenced to a year in prison—and to a perhaps fatal 100 lashes after her child is born. Another woman was visited by two men—one had been breast-fed by her; the other was bringing her bread. Convicted of the crime of being in the presence of men who are not family members, she was sentenced to 40 lashes, which is perhaps a death sentence for a 75-year-old. The "community of nations" that liberals like Rice believe in certainly has what liberals celebrate: diversity.
If there is a "community of nations," then "Yes, we can" do this and that. But if not?
During Barack Obama's trip abroad, during which he praised himself by disparaging his predecessor and deploring America's shortcomings, he took pandering to a comic peak, combining criticism of America with flattery of Europe, when he deplored America's "failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world." Actually, as the crisis of aggression and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans demonstrated a decade ago, Europe plays almost no leadership role, even in Europe, which remains a geographical rather than a political denotation.
Europe's collective existence through NATO might be ending. Afghanistan, the supposed "graveyard of empires," might be the burial ground of NATO, which is 60 years old and showing signs of advanced senescence. Officially, NATO says the Afghanistan campaign is vital; actually, it promises a mere 5,000 more troops, none of them for combat. Most of the NATO nations that grudgingly send dribs and drabs of troops to Afghanistan send them enveloped in caveats that virtually vitiate their usefulness, including the stipulation that they shall not be put in harm's way. Tom Korologos, who was U.S. ambassador to Belgium from 2004 to 2007, recalls that when Belgium finally agreed to send a few hundred troops from its unionized "army"—average age: 40—other caveats concerned bottled water, a certain ratio of psychiatrists to troops and a requirement that dust be kept to a minimum.
In Europe, during his first star turn on the world stage, the president learned, or should have, that charm and two euros will almost get him a copy of the International Herald Tribune. Out there in the blue, flying high, selling himself, he found out how far he can go on a smile and a shoeshine.
America's enemies are not smiling back. Those are smirks, not smiles.