When the Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003, it was accused of ignoring old allies and snubbing the U.N. Thus, in the next crisis, a wary United States waited on the U.N. to monitor Iran's nuclear delinquency. With multilateral deference, it also called upon Britain, France and Germany — the so-called EU3 — to reason with Tehran. But for all the inclusive diplomacy, Iran barrels ahead with its nuclear program. In another part world, as North Korea threatened to launch more missiles, America tried to find regional solutions — the so-called six-party talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States. But nothing much happened here, either, and impatient critics did an about-face: They screamed that the asleep-at-the-wheel Bush administration was "outsourcing" solutions and abdicating its responsibility to lead.
We've seen that in Darfur as well, where the global village has clamored for the U.S. to do something right away about the genocide. But, apparently stung by past charges of cowboyism, a gun-shy American sheriff has opted not to act preemptively. If we think Afghanistan or Iraq is chaotic, imagine the mess of airlifting Marines into the Horn of Africa to save the victims of tribal and religious killers — as al-Qaida promises to send in more jihadist reinforcements.
The roster of this do/don't schizophrenia is endless. We once had troops in Saudi Arabia to protect the monarchy there from Saddam. But once we removed that threat, the monarchy charged we had only empowered a far worse Iran. We were supposedly once too cynically disengaged from the Middle East, but now our efforts to promote democracy there only elected the terrorists of Hamas.
It may be hard for the world's new impatient generation to accept the truth: There are no simple black-and-white solutions at little cost in today's technologically connected but politically fragmented world. Restless Americans and a demanding global public are going to have to accept that in Afghanistan, Darfur, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Somalia and the West Bank, the United States itself — not just the bogeyman George Bush — has only bad and far worse choices.
What sometimes works against jihadists and tyrants in one place won't always in others. Unilateral, multilateral, react or preempt — these have no innate moral value but are just differing strategies for a baffling multitude of new problems that all defy a cookie-cutter approach. After 9/11, caution in the long run may prove deadlier than intervention has in the short term. People will die daily on CNN no matter what we do.
The only constant in this wired-together but split-apart global family? The frantic American parent will try its best, as it is blamed for saying no, yes — and everything in between.