Matt Welch

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: The "allies" -- which are understood to be France, Germany, and to a lesser extent Canada -- have all already announced their troops will stay home, even if the Democrat wins.

Kerry dipped even further into the speculative with his assertion during the second debate that, had he been president during the run-up to the war, "I would have brought our allies to our side."

I reckon that we won't know for decades who, between Bush and Jacques Chirac, is more to blame for the inability of the United Nations Security Council to agree on an explicit authorization of military force. Still, I can say with great confidence that A) Kerry doesn't know for sure either, and B) his implicit assumption - that the fallout was Bush's fault - ignores the tangible role played by European anti-Americanism.

If Kerry wins, he will learn this the hard way.

The French government didn't start tossing around the epithet "hyperpower" only after George W. Bush was elected, nor was 2003 the first time that a French president has thwarted American diplomacy.

The memoirs of Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright are filled with exasperation at Washington's oldest ally, and crude playground insight suggests European public opinion is not likely to change overnight: Just because the most popular and powerful kid in school has a new haircut, doesn't mean you won't resent the hell out of him for doing what he pleases.

This last point remains utterly lost on Bush and his administration. Anti-Americanism, in their view, is a moral weakness to mock, not a policy problem to confront. It's the price of having an independent moral compass, not the result of throwing around your weight willy-nilly.

"Listen," Bush said at the second debate, in response to an audience question about how he would "repair relations" with other countries, "we've got a great country. I love our values. ... Sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because you think they're right."

This traditionally isolationist sentiment, when mixed with the neo-conservatives' essentially internationalist belief in the "forward strategy of freedom," produces natural dissonance and harsh reality checks. American troops were not, alas, greeted with flowers in Baghdad (which was suggested, remember, in the pre-war argument for keeping troop levels down).

The idealistic war of liberation in Iraq required gutter-level co-operation with the brutally repressive regime in bordering Saudi Arabia. Citizens with the misfortune of living in countries that border Afghanistan are generally less free, not more, as a partial result of American policy.

The dictators of Pakistan and Uzbekistan have snuffed out opposition parties with Bush's blessing (or at least benign neglect), and Iran has stepped up its anti-democratic crackdown.

Pragmatically speaking, a Woodrow Wilson-style internationalist foreign policy conducted with an Andrew Jackson-style irritability and swagger, is a formula for overstretch. You don't get much help from people you piss off.

The U.S. right now might not be physically capable of fighting another war, and it will be years, maybe decades, before overextended National Guardsmen are again called "weekend warriors." But being right means never having to admit you were wrong, especially if you're certain the opponent is unfit to govern.

There is little to no consideration, on the anti-Bush side, that the target of their wrath may have done the right thing, and indeed the only thing possible given the geopolitical circumstances, to the regime of Saddam Hussein, or that democracy in the Middle East is more likely as a result.

And from the right, the certainty that Kerry is insufficiently serious about terrorism is matched only by the confidence that there are no serious drawbacks to cranky interventionism, just people who lose their nerve. 2000 seems like a distant and trivial world of White House sex and humble foreign policies. We're as divided as ever, only this time we mean it.

Matt Welch is an associate editor at Reason magazine. His stories are archived at

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

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