From Baghdad to Belarus

March 22, 2006

President Bush was going on again yesterday about success in Iraq; three years into the war, it is, no doubt, a little unrealistic to expect him to suddenly start coming to terms with reality. Polls suggest that most Americans have learned to tune him out, which may be a healthy reaction for the individual but doesn't bode well for the nation.

For three years, the president has talked about progress, and yet the future of Iraq looks darker now than ever before. And it's not just Iraq; it seems the obliviousness is spreading. Last week, the administration rolled out an updated strategic doctrine, dedicated to the spread of democracy and freedom worldwide and reserving for the United States the right to launch pre-emptive war against tyrants who stand in the way. Didn't Iraq teach the White House anything about the folly of going to war on your own say-so? And yet, can anyone else take this seriously, given the mess that the United States finds itself in?

A case in point is Belarus. That miserable nation held elections Sunday, and the dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, took a reported (and undoubtedly cooked) 83 percent of the tally. Let's see. Tyrant? Check. Lacking freedom and democracy? Check. Broad American disapproval? Check. Pre-emptive war? Uh, not now.

Well, the idea of going to war over Belarus is, of course, ridiculous. Nothing could possibly be gained by it. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is standing behind Mr. Lukashenko - for one thing, the Belarusian president makes Mr. Putin look downright moderate by comparison - and this means Belarus isn't worth getting excited about, because relations with Russia are far more important, and complicated enough as it is. Belarus is not following its neighbor, Ukraine, which was ready for change back in 2004, and Washington can't do much more than lament the difference.

At least the White House is realistic enough not to do something crazy in Belarus. But why, then, indulge these fantasies about success in Iraq and the doctrine of further pre-emptive wars in support of democracy? Empty talk, endlessly repeated, doesn't rattle potential adversaries, it undermines American credibility - and exposes more than a whiff of hypocrisy. The deepening debacle in Baghdad makes it less likely that the United States could foster democratic change in Minsk. The Russians, sensing weakness, are more likely to challenge American influence, in regard to Belarus, and to Iran, and to China, where they've just signed a big pipeline deal.

The world is a dangerous place, and the occupant of the White House seems to be stuck in a belief system of his own. Naturally Americans want to turn away and worry about their own lives, but that may be a luxury they cannot much longer afford.

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