Idiocy of the week

A leading thinker on the left finds strange inspiration from Ronald Reagan.

Published October 15, 2002 11:07PM (EDT)

Liberal journalist Harold Meyerson made an impassioned plea Sunday on the pages of the Washington Post for "containing" Saddam Hussein, rather than deposing or disarming him. Containment is indeed the most credible alternative to the Bush administration's policy right now. It's certainly more apposite than such mindless slogans as "Dialogue Not War." Of course, Meyerson doesn't address why 11 years of containment haven't worked; indeed, why they've actually led to a more aggressive Iraqi attempt to get weapons of mass destruction in continued violation of umpteen U.N. resolutions. But never mind. The new position of some on the left is to be thoroughly indifferent to evil, genocidal dictators with nerve gas, as long as the dictators use it on their own populations and not on us.

The spirit of Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy is still clearly alive.

But to the idiocy of the week. It's buried in Meyerson's otherwise well-written piece. See if you can spot it:

"In particular, Sept. 11 has made it more difficult for opponents of the administration's policy to argue that Iraq can be contained and deterred -- not because of the merits of the case, but because it is easy to make the containment argument look like the new-age version of Munich-like appeasement. And never mind that after 45 years of containment, the Soviet Union was appeased into collapse. Never mind that Iraq is not a terrorist group that can flee to the hills: It is a nation-state, it is the hills. It could suffer assured destruction just as the Soviet Union could have, and it wouldn't be mutual."

Of course, the one question Meyerson ignores is this pretty central one: Why is Saddam so intent on getting such weapons in the first place? Meyerson ignores the most immediate scenario that a nuclear-armed Saddam would unleash not a nuclear war but an Iraqi state that could and would be used as a launchpad for a global war of terror against the West.

If we tried to stop it, Iraq would threaten nuclear war. And we would have no choice but to stand down. Yes, Iraq is the hills, which is why it's vital to keep it from being the future headquarters of al-Qaida, Inc. Think of the Taliban with nukes, and you get the idea of what a nuclear Iraq would be like: a Bali explosion every other week -- around the globe. If Afghanistan had had nukes in September 2001, we'd be having al-Qaida strikes on a weekly basis. And we could do nothing serious about them, except escalating into a nuclear showdown. That's what Bush is trying to avoid. You would think at least some on the left might sympathize. But their hatred of the president and their suspicion of America blinds them to that reality.

But I digress. Here's the classic in Meyerson's piece: "And never mind that after 45 years of containment, the Soviet Union was appeased into collapse."

Now I'm assuming here that Meyerson is referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union under the last president Bush after eight years of Ronald Reagan. So here we have a serious thinker on the left arguing that Ronald Reagan and George Bush first contained and then appeased the Soviets. Think about that. A rhetorical and diplomatic break in 1980 with the détente of the 1970s; a huge and costly defense buildup; financing and military support of counter-Soviet insurgencies from Nicaragua to Afghanistan; the pursuit of Star Wars; the refusal at Reykjavik to accept any deceleration in space defense spending; the description in London of the Soviet Union as destined for the "ash-heap of history"; the call on Gorbachev in Berlin to "tear down this wall"; the insistence on autonomy for the member states of the Soviet empire (yes, that one was an empire); the establishment of a united Germany in NATO; NATO membership all the way to Russia's borders; and on and on. This, according to Meyerson, was appeasement. Appeasement? What would toughness have looked like?

Assume for a deranged moment that he's right. Why, then, did Meyerson and every other good lefty so passionately oppose Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s? Why did they join the nuclear freeze movement? Why did they campaign against SDI? Why did they go ape-shit about support for the contras? If Reagan was such an appeaser, what on earth was the left complaining about? Similarly, what was the right doing? Surely they should have been accusing Reagan of being a complete sellout from his earliest days. Strangely, perversely, bizarrely, they weren't.

The truth, of course, is that the Reagan era did represent a change in U.S. policy toward the Soviets. The West went on the offensive. We challenged the Soviets on every continent, we built up armaments even at the expense of massive debt, we rammed through SDI and we called our enemy the dread word "evil." The pooh-bahs of the foreign policy establishment warned that a cowboy was in charge. The Europeans mounted mass demonstrations to protest. The "peace" movement rallied across the country. Sound familiar?

Next up: Meyerson on how Kennedy appeased Khrushchev into a backdown on Cuba and how Churchill appeased the Nazis into surrender. Hey, if it worked so well then, why not now?

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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