They saw it coming

Posted: Feb 14, 2003 12:00 AM
Something amazing, exhilarating and a little scary happened Monday. What Donald Rumsfeld called the Old Europe stretched out its once-massive hand to dislodge American influence -- and came up empty.

Paris and Berlin together blocked U.S. and NATO efforts to plan to defend NATO ally Turkey in case of war with neighboring Iraq. And as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, "There's three countries. There are 19 countries in NATO. So it's 16 to 3."

In other words, as France and Germany go, so goes Belgium.

Turkey, naturally, was not amused. It takes 30 days to get NATO missiles in place to defend her borders, and the declarations of France and Germany that they would prepare to defend Turkey later -- when the timing was right -- were less than reassuring to one of the younger NATO members.

The response of the NATO allies who joined us was perhaps less than surprising. When it comes right down to it, who would you rather trust to protect and defend your democracy -- Berlin or Washington? Especially for the Central European newborn democracies, with fresher memories of the dangers of ruthless nearby dictatorships, the answer is not hard to find.

Desperate to forestall an American-led coalition, France and Germany, backed by Moscow, proposed to triple the number of inspectors in Iraq as an alternative to war. Too bad that that same day, chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix underscored for Western news media that Iraqi cooperation, not lack of manpower, was the real issue: "The principal problem is not the number of inspectors but rather the active cooperation of the Iraqi side, as we have said many times," he told Reuters news agency.

The last time American power was so obviously, disproportionately (one might say even unilaterally) influential was after World War II, but America was then only a relative colossus, as Europe lay devastated and the Soviet empire prepared to rise. Now, after two generations of peace and prosperity, underwritten by American willingness to defend free countries, America's power and influence, whether for good or ill, is dizzying and disconcerting.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this moment of national greatness is how clearly the founding generation foresaw it. In 1782, Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary and a speller that sold more than 100 million copies, confidently pointed out that America "founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom -- she secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony. ... it will finally raise her to pitch of glory and lustre, before which the ancient glory of Greece and Rome will dwindle to a point, and the splendor of modern Empires fade into obscurity."

Founding fathers such as Webster not only foresaw American national greatness, but they understood its cause: individual liberty that unleashed the power of the minds of millions of people who were born here, or who came here seeking freedom. Americans by and large have never sought power in the world for its own sake. The power and influence that we have on the world stage is a byproduct of the liberties we do seek and treasure for ourselves and for people around the world.

In his fascinating new book, "Of Paradise and Power," Robert Kagan explains: "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus." But Kagan perhaps underestimates the appeal a trustworthy Mars can exert. This week, a whole lot of Venusians just jumped planets.