Friday, August 15, 2008

It's Not 1968

Two days ago, Condi Rice stared into the TV camera and announced, with considerable indignation, that this was not 1968. “Times have changed,” she declared. Her intended target was Putin, but she would have done everybody a favor had she delivered the same message to her boss.

In 1962, when JFK stood toe-to-toe with Khrushchev over the issue of missiles in Cuba, he was dealing from a position of absolute power. We had over 200 active ICBMs buried in bunkers from Arizona to North Dakota, and thanks to U2 Soviet overflight intelligence we knew with certainty that the U.S.S.R. had less than a dozen ICBMs up and running. Moreover, Kennedy was admired and respected pretty much everywhere around the world but Moscow. Finally, the United States had the unquestioned global moral authority.

In 1968 when the Soviets invaded Hungary, our missile superiority was even greater, and despite our quagmire situation in Vietnam, the U.S. still had the high ground when it came to moral authority. But as Condi Rice has said, “Times have changed.” The only thing still in place is our ability to destroy every living thing with nukes. If the U.S. isn’t prepared to launch a nuclear first strike against Russia, then Putin is the guy who is dealing from the position of strength in this newest conflict over Georgia.

What Americans, for the most part, don’t understand is that foreign perceptions about our country have changed so significantly that our moral authority is gone. Not just diminished, but gone. Even after the end of the Cold War, Europeans never completely trusted Moscow. Putin is just living down to the low expectations held by his neighbors. But the low expectations now held for the U.S. represents something that was never seen before, and as bad as Russia seems now, most average people in Europe actually believe that the United States is worse. My wife and I travel frequently in Europe, and we lie about our citizenship—we claim that we are Canadian—in order to be accepted wholeheartedly. This is the new reality for American international tourism.

Putin gets it. He knows that the U.S. military is stretched paper-thin in the Middle East, making any prospect of armed conflict nearly impossible for the United States. He also knows that when Bush makes his “holier-than-thou” pronouncements, the world sees him as laughable, and Putin further knows that many Americans share the same opinion. Bush has reveled in the role of the bully for most of his presidency, and now he confronts another bully in the person of Putin. Our President should save himself further embarrassment, and simply be quiet. The Russians had perfected the role of bully when Bush was still living the life of a drunken frat boy, and they’re sure as hell not about to be intimidated by pathetic little Condi Rice. Meanwhile, we can assume that Cheney is in an undisclosed location.

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