A few months ago, President Obama was quoted as telling a Democratic congressman who was against the president’s “stimulus” plan, “Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother.”
Coming from the president of the United States, and aimed at a member of his own party, that’s threatening stuff. But from remarks such as that to his repeated verbal attacks on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and businesses in general, President Obama has demonstrated that he’s always eager to view American politics as the continuation of warfare by other means, to flip von Clausewitz’s axiom on its head. Certainly class and culture warfare at least. It’s the Chicago way, after all. And last year on the campaign trail, Obama more than once referred to “civilians” when discussing opponents whom he thought should not be publicly attacked in the legacy media political battlefield — but would tacitly leave to his surrogates to demonize.
But when confronted with a civil war brewing inside a nation that’s been an sworn enemy of America for three decades? Mark Steyn writes that the president is desperate to be seen as cool and aloof, strictly a hands-off guy:
And how did it go down? At Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayotollah Khamenei attacked “dirty Zionists” and “bad British radio” (presumably a reference to the BBC’s Farsi news service rather than the non-stop Herman’s Hermits marathon on Supergold Oldies FM). “The most evil of them all is the British government,” added the supreme leader, warming to his theme. The crowd, including President Ahmadinelandslide and his cabinet, chanted, “Death to the U.K.”
Her Majesty’s Government brought this on themselves by allowing their shoot-from-the-lip prime minister to issue saber-rattling threats like: “The regime must address the serious questions which have been asked about the conduct of the Iranian elections.”
Fortunately, President Obama was far more judicious. And in return, instead of denouncing him as “evil” and deploring the quality of his radio programming, Ayatollah Khamenei said Obama’s “agents” had been behind the protests: “They started to cause riots in the street, they caused destruction, they burnt houses.” But that wasn’t all the Great Satin did. “What is the worst thing to me in all this,” sighed the supreme leader, “are comments made in the name of human rights and freedom and liberty by American officials . . . What? Are you serious? Do you know what human rights are?”
And then he got into specifics: “During the time of the Democrats, the time of Clinton, 80 people were burned alive in Waco. Now you are talking about human rights?”
It’s unclear whether the “Death to the U.K.” chanters switched at this point to “Democrats lied, people fried.” But you get the gist. The President of the United States can make nice to His Hunkalicious Munificence the Supremely Supreme Leader of Leaders (Peace Be Upon Him) all he wants, but it isn’t going to be reciprocated.
There’s a very basic lesson here: For great powers, studied neutrality isn’t an option. Even if you’re genuinely neutral. In the early nineties, the attitude of much of the west to the disintegrating Yugoslavia was summed up in the brute dismissal of James Baker that America didn’t have a dog in this fight. Fair enough. But over in the Balkans junkyard the various mangy old pooches saw it rather differently. And so did the Muslim world, which regarded British and European “neutrality” as a form of complicity in mass murder. As Osama bin Laden put it:
The British are responsible for destroying the Caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that two million Muslims were killed.
How come a catalogue of imperial interventions wound up with that bit of scrupulous non-imperial non-intervention? Because great-power “even-handedness” will invariably be received as a form of one-handedness by the time its effects are felt on the other side of the world. Western “even-handedness” on Bosnia was the biggest single factor in the radicalization of European Muslims. They swarmed to the Balkans to support their coreligionists and ran into a bunch of Wahhabi imams moving into the neighborhood with lots of Saudi money and anxious to fill their Rolodex with useful contacts in the west. Among the alumni of that conflict was the hitherto impeccably assimilated English public (ie, private) schoolboy and London School of Economics student who went on to behead the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl. You always have a dog in the fight, whether you know it or not.
Needless to say, read the whole thing.
Update (6/21/09): Related thoughts on Obama as domestic warrior from Stacy McCain, who also quotes from Michael Barone and others on the topic: “Obama’s no Daley, but . . .”