When I was a kid, there was a bully in our neighborhood. He never picked on kids his own size and certainly not on anyone larger. Rather, he punched, pushed and kicked kids smaller and weaker than himself, especially those who refused to respond to his threats. Stirred by his adversaries' impotent responses, the bully felt free to slug anyone he fancied. Most kids tried to avoid him, thinking their demonstration of weakness might protect them from being hit. It never did. Having set themselves up as easy targets, the bully went after these kids first.
This lesson learned early in life has served me well as a citizen of the United States. It is why some choose to arm themselves, install alarm systems on their homes, own large dogs and learn self-defense. During the Reagan years, in matters of foreign policy, self-defense was known as "peace through strength." And it worked. America's strength and the assurance held by much the world that we were willing to use our muscle against threats served to deter those who might have wanted a piece of us.
Now we are faced with an administration that believes pandering, appeasement (as Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty bravely called it) and negotiation can change the nature of dictators with dark souls. That "strategy" will be on display again this week when President Obama speaks to the United Nations and talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Bullies like Abbas, and the people he represents, love to negotiate with the West because it weakens us and bolsters their spirit. We give and they take without giving anything in return. The Middle East is a textbook example of failed negotiations between unequals.
In the days of Al Capone, individuals and businesses bought "protection" from the mob. Today, no public or private insurance policy is available to protect us from predatory nations or terrorist organizations. A punch in the nose -- or the threat of one -- still deters bullies far better than signed agreements, which they have no intention of honoring.
Why have the world's bullies suddenly become more galvanized against the West, especially the United States? It's because they believe President Obama's loftiness about talking to despots instead of standing up to them demonstrates weakness. So we're going to talk (again) to North Korea's Kim Jong-Il about dismantling his nuclear weapons program when he has refused to honor previous promises to cease and desist. With his track record, why would we believe any agreement he signs the next time?
When tyrants like Iran's Ahmadinejad, Venezuela's Chavez, Cuba's Castro and, increasingly, Russia's Putin, see a foreign affairs novice like President Obama they may believe his pocket can be picked. History -- and human nature -- has shown that appeasing evil begets more evil. Does the President believe that he has something of a divine gift? Will the sound of his voice and his steely glare compel the tyrannical lion to lie down with the peace-loving and docile American lamb?
If our foreign adversaries believe America will not respond to aggression, we'll get more aggression.
In 1956, Hungarian freedom fighters believed the United States would come to their aid against the occupying Soviets. When we didn't the tanks rolled in and many were killed. When President Kennedy met Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, Khrushchev concluded that Kennedy was weak. This conclusion precipitated the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly led to nuclear war. Then there was Vietnam, which some still believe America abandoned before it finished the job. Osama bin Laden believes this. He has cited Vietnam as his main reason for believing he can outlast the U.S. in the terrorist war.
There was a time when America was feared. That time has passed. Either we restore it or we'll live -- or die -- to regret it.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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