The promiscuous desire to be liked is a personal character flaw because it often conflicts with acting according the principles one espouses. This homely moral fact is binding on the great as well as the humble, and its pertinence even extends the behavior of nations. The poet Schiller once advised his fellows to render to their contemporaries “what they need, not what they praise.” This is a prescription not for immediate popularity but for lasting respect.
I thought of this recently while reading an interview President Bush gave to the London Times in which he expressed regret for his challenging rhetoric, and actions almost as challenging, in the war on terror. His regret, the Times said, had led him to replace “the unilateralism that marked his first White House term” with “an enthusiasm for tough multilateralism.”
“Tough multilateralism”: what manner of beast is that? Two headlines this morning made me ponder this with renewed curiosity: Bush urges diplomacy with Iran but all options open; the other read: Iran says West fails to stop nuclear advances and contained the useful additional observation by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that “With God’s help today [the Iranian nation] have gained victory and the enemies cannot do a damned thing.”
The popular option–the option advocated by most of Europe and nearly all Democratic politicians in the US–is to talk and talk and talk about Iran, to propose new “sanctions,” which Iran openly defies and holds in contempt.
President Bush is right that “Iran with a nuclear weapon would be incredibly dangerous for world peace.” But is he willing to take the steps, almost certainly unpopular steps, to prevent that from happening? “Jaw-Jaw,” said Winston Churchill, “is better than War-War.” True, too true. But Churchill also foresaw the cost of appeasing a fanatical enemy. “You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” he said in a speech after Neville “Peace in Our Time” Chamberlain returned from Munich. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.