Recently, an open mic caught French President Nicolas Sarkozy and American President Barack Obama jointly trashing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sarkozy scoffed, "I cannot stand him. He's a liar." Obama trumped that with, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day."
In one of the most bizarre op-eds published by the New York Times in recent memory, Paul Kane suggested that the United States could literally sell out its support for democratic Taiwan for about a $1 trillion. He argued that the Chinese might be so thankful to us for letting them get their hands on the island that they might forgive much of what we owe them.
So why does the United States take risks in guaranteeing the security of countries such as Israel and Taiwan? Surely the smart money -- and most of the world -- bets on its richer enemies. The Arab Middle East has oil, hundreds of millions of people and lots of dangerous radical Islamic terrorists. China is more than 1 billion strong, with the fastest-growing economy in the world.
But President Obama should remember that America does not think solely in terms of national advantage. In fact, only the United States seems to have an affinity for protecting tiny, vulnerable countries. In two wars, and more than 12 years of no-fly zones in Iraq, America saved the Kurds from a genocidal Saddam Hussein.
Greece today has few friends. Its northern European creditors are furious with its profligacy and duplicity. Nearby, an ascendant Turkey is flexing its muscles over occupied Cyprus and new finds of gas and oil in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. In short, a bankrupt Greece of only 11 million people, residing in one of history's most dangerous neighborhoods, has few strong friends other than the United States. The same is true of Christian Armenia, which likewise is relatively small and near to historical enemies in Turkey and Russia.
All of these people -- Israelis, anti-communist Chinese, Kurds, Greeks and Armenians -- have a few things in common. They have relatively small -- and often shrinking -- populations, aggressive neighbors, few strong allies, many expatriates and refugees in the United States, and a tragic history of persecution and genocide. Half the world's Jews were lost to the Holocaust. Had Mao Zedong -- the most prolific mass murderer in history -- gotten his way, the entire anti-communist Chinese population who fled in terror to Taiwan would have been wiped out. In the early 1920s, nearly a million Greeks perished in Asia Minor -- ethnically cleansed by a Turkey that had at one time conquered and occupied Greece for more than 350 years. A million Armenians perished during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The stateless Kurds have often been persecuted by Arabs, Iranians and Turks.
We should remember that Greece and Taiwan would have disappeared in the late 1940s as free, independent countries without American military support and guarantees. Armenia did not exist as a free nation until America helped to force the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kurdistan emerged as an autonomous province only when America deposed Saddam Hussein. Israel might have vanished during the 1973 Yom Kippur War without massive American military aid.
Of course, these historically persecuted peoples can at times be testy allies and even sound anti-American. Their national characters -- reflecting centuries of oppression -- understandably can seem prone to collective paranoia and conspiracy theories. Yet Israel, Taiwan, Kurdistan, Greece and Armenia are democratic, with rich histories that survived against all odds.
In the next few years, as never before, our small friends will be tested. Iran has promised to wipe out Israel and may soon get the bomb to do it. We are withdrawing all troops at the end of the year from Iraq, and Kurdistan will then be entirely on its own. Russia often talks about reconstituting its former Soviet client states into some sort of new imperial federation. China thinks it is only a matter of time before Taiwan can be absorbed. The new Turkey is beginning to look a lot like the old imperial Ottoman Sultanate.
Yet if protecting these small states is risky, our concern also reflects positively upon the singular values of the United States. The United Nations has neither the will nor the capability to ensure the security of these countries. The eroding European Union talks grandly of international values but rarely risks its blood or treasure to defend them.
Only America is moral and strong enough to protect the world's historically vulnerable but culturally unique peoples. It would be a shame if we forgot that -- either out of desire for profit or because we became fed up with the bother.