There are some phrases that come to mean the opposite of what they say. For example, Never Again!
That vow is uttered after every genocidal campaign makes the news. It was heard after Srebrenica in the Balkans, after what happened in Rwanda and Darfur in Africa, after every recurring horror. And it grows less and less meaningful, more a precursor to the next atrocity than a reaction to the last.
Never Again! That refrain goes back at least to the Armenian Massacres at the beginning of the 20th century and the Holocaust in the middle of it. Ours may not have been the nuclear century or the internetted century so much as the genocidal century.
Now another city is being reduced to a charnel house -- Homs in Syria -- while the world stands by, talking, talking, talking. Blood flows, war brews, and the diplomats give speeches.
At the United Nations, that great font of resolutions without resolution, the distinguished representatives dither while Syria's dictator wipes out a restive population. Just as Moammar Gadhafi set out to do in Libya before the West finally roused itself. His end should have set an example of how to handle crises like the one in Syria, but Washington and the rest of the West only confer; they do not act.
There is much talk out of Western capitals, little else. While the innocents are slaughtered. In ever increasing numbers. Statesmen gather to negotiate carefully balanced statements that are supposed to address the problem but don't -- as if they believed that words speak louder than actions. As always, they don't. Which is why the phrase Never Again! has acquired such an ironic sound.
Here's another term now used to mean its opposite: Unacceptable. Again and again this administration -- indeed, all the West -- has said letting Iran's mullahs get their hands on a nuclear weapon would be, "unacceptable." But the cyclotrons keep spinning.
Time is running out for those who say, but only say, they would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran. The time when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and fanatical company have a nuke and the means to deliver it draws nearer. Once he gets a nuclear weapon of his very own, Mr. Apocalypse would be able not just to talk about wiping another country off the map (or maybe two or three) but to do it.
But that would be "unacceptable," according to our president. By which, it becomes clearer with each passing day, he means acceptable.
Economic sanctions are voted at the UN. So? Iran's regime evades them, and imposes embargoes of its own.
The mullahs know their 20th century history. They know Western democracies find it easier to temporize, to put off a growing danger, to decry the threat rather than face it. European leaders have a well-established, and well-deserved, reputation for appeasing dictators. And now America is expected to follow their example.
The decline of the West can be measured in the crises it declines to recognize. Till it's too late, or almost so. Till a rogue state like North Korea gets its Bomb. Look at how long it took the West to move in the Balkans. And in Libya. And now it only watches as new horrors unfold in Syria.
The pattern is familiar. It goes back to the 1930s, when the raving demagogue was a German. It took forever for European statesmen to realize that the funny little man with a moustache would not be appeased despite their best efforts. They may have read his book, in which he laid out his pet hatreds and dreams of world domination beyond question, but it was hard to take him seriously. Surely, he would prove only a passing fancy in a highly civilized nation, the land of Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Mozart.
In their naivete, the leaders of the West's democracies had no idea whom they were dealing with in Herr Hitler. And he had an all too accurate understanding of whom he was dealing with. The more of his demands were met, the more demanding he became. The more concessions the Chamberlains and Daladiers made, the more aggressive he became.
Each of Herr Hitler's territorial demands was to be the last -- before the next one. And war came. For there are certain things that eventually have to be faced in this world. Like evil.
Now the same pattern is being played out again. Another team of UN inspectors has been dispatched to Teheran, and has returned without being allowed to inspect anything nuclear. Tension builds.
In 1938, a little country like Czechoslovakia could be sacrificed readily enough for a brief and ersatz Peace in Our Time. But in 2012, a little country like Israel is no Czechoslovakia; it has nuclear weapons of its own. It also has a good, indeed a haunting, inescapable memory of where appeasement leads. It cannot be counted on to go gently into that awful night. Not again.
In Washington, the American secretary of defense, Mr. Leon Panetta, is quoted as saying he believes there is a "strong possibility" Israel may strike at Iran's fast-developing nuclear installations in April, May or June. What, no exact date? No precise Israeli order of battle to share with Teheran, too? The secretary has backed away from that statement, but it lingers in the diplomatic air. Like a (not so) distant early warning.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not as coy. After meeting with Israeli officials, Gen. Martin Dempsey warned, "It's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran." He's still hoping (against hope) that its leaders will decide not "to weaponize their nuclear capability." Which is the Strangelovian way generals today speak about the unspeakable. They use vague euphemisms, as if vague language could keep the danger vague, too. It can't. The danger grows clearer and closer every day.
Is it time for an international conference at the very top level to reach a comprehensive agreement and break this impasse? They say Munich is nice in the spring.
In the unlikely event Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and cohort prove sane and refrain from actually using the Bomb they've worked so long and deviously to develop, its very existence would dramatically alter the already shaky balance of power in the Mideast, and not for the better. It would surely set off a nuclear arms race between Iran and its more fearful neighbors and rivals like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.
Or maybe Iran's little fuehrer would wipe his fingerprints off and transfer a nuke or two to one of his regime's fronts, Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Hezbollah in Lebanon, and let them deliver it on target. There's no end to the tricky possibilities, one more dangerous than the other. Welcome to the nuclearized Middle East, as if that part of the world weren't volatile enough.
The other day, another temporizer was heard from -- William Hague, the British foreign secretary. Demonstrating a talent for stating the obvious, he pointed out that a military strike against Iran's fast-developing nuclear capacity would have "enormous downsides." And he was using understatement. Such an attack would risk embroiling the whole Middle East in still another war, one that might involve more than the Middle East this time.
Indeed, the only thing more dangerous than launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear installations might be not to launch it, and let Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carry out his promise to rearrange the map of the Middle East. And risk not just another war in that volatile region but a nuclear one. To adapt a phrase from that noted analyst of foreign and all other affairs, Bette Davis aka Margo Channing: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride!"