Sunday, January 28, 2007
Mark Steyn: Old U.S.S.R. made Old Europe look new
Successors between Khruschev and Gorbachov together: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko at a brunch sometime in 1981.
January 28, 2007
John O'Sullivan's new book The President, The Pope And The Prime Minister has a marvelous account of the funeral of Yuri Andropov. In case you've forgotten, he was one of those late-period Soviet leaders who looked like he'd been plucked in haste from the local embalmer's and propped up against the balcony for the May Day parade. When he was eventually pronounced (officially) dead in 1984, Margaret Thatcher was prevailed upon by an aide to stop at a shoe store en route to the airport and get some fleece-lined boots for the chilly February burial. She grumbled about the cost all the way to Moscow. There she met Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, whom the Politburo had anointed as the next cadaver-in-chief. And, after shaking hands with him, she stopped complaining about the cost of her Kremlin boots. "They were a prudent long-term investment," she told her aide.
More like short-term. Vice President George H. W. Bush was nearer to the mark when he said goodbye to the U.S. Embassy staff after the Andropov funeral: "Next year, same time, same place." Close enough. Chernenko died 13 months later.
The decrepitude of the Politburo waxworks and their Eastern European clients embodied the ideological health of communism: Andropov and Chernenko were the sclerosis of the regime made wan flesh. With democracies, decrepitude is harder to spot. Our leaders are younger, and even in the U.S. Senate -- the nearest the Western world has to a Brezhnevite politburo -- new blood occasionally shows up: Barack Obama is hot, hip, happening, even if none of his political ideas are. But old whines in new bottles sell better than old whines in old bottles, as John Kerry evidently concluded. Last week, the senator took to the floor and reduced himself to tears as he announced that he'd regretfully decided not to run for president again. John Edwards shoveled him into the landfill oistory with some oleaginous boilerplate about Kerry's readiness to "respond to any call to serve his country." Was anybody calling? And why would they? What does Senator Kerry weep for other than his own thwarted ambition? What did he stand for? What was his vision other than a belief in his own indispensability?
Alas, the air of Andropovian exhaustion is not confined to Massachusetts. In the State of the Union, the president (as presidents are wont to do on Tuesday nights in January) spoke about energy, but he didn't seem to have any. Five years ago, when he was genuinely engaged by the subject, he wanted to drill in ANWR and go nuclear: He was energetic about energy. When both those excellent ideas went nowhere, President Bush retreated to some familiar bromides about vague targets and new regulations and increased efficiencies: His list was listless.
This seems to suit the Democrats. The only energy displayed by Nancy Pelosi was the spectacular leap to her feet within a nano-second of the president mentioning Darfur. Up went Madam Speaker and the entire Democratic caucus like enthusiastic loons on a gameshow. Darfur! We're all in favor of Darfur. People are being murdered! Hundreds of thousands! We oughtta do something! Like, er, jump up and down when it's mentioned in a speech. And, er, call for the international community to mobilize. Maybe one of those leathery old '60s rockers could organize an all-star concert or something. If Darfur were indeed a game show, the Sudanese would quickly discover it's one of those ones where you come on down to discover you've missed out on all the big prizes but you're not going away empty-handed: No, sir, here's your very own SAVE DARFUR! T-shirt autographed by Nancy Pelosi and George Clooney.
Darfur is an apt symbol of early 21st century liberalism: What matters is that you urge action rather than take any. On Iraq, meanwhile, the president declared: "Let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory." And the Dems sat on their hands.
The American left has long deplored Bush's rhetorical reliance on such vulgar conceits as "good" and "evil." But it seems even "victory" is a problematic concept, and right now the momentum is all for defeat of one kind or another. America is talking itself into willing a defeat that has not (yet) occurred on the ground, and would be fatally damaging to this nation's credibility if it did. Last year Arthur M. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, gave a commencement address of almost parodic boomer narcissism, hailing his own generation for their anti-war idealism. Advocating defeat first time round, John Kerry estimated America might have to relocate a few thousand local allies. As it happens, millions died in Vietnam and Cambodia. And the least the self-absorbed poseurs like Sulzberger could do is occasionally remember that the world is about more than their moral vanity.
The open defeatists on the Democrat side and the nuanced defeatists among "moderate" Republicans seem to think that big countries can choose to lose small wars. After all, say the "realists," Iraq isn't any more important to Americans than Vietnam was. But a realpolitik cynic knows the tactical price of everything and the strategic value of nothing. This is something on an entirely different scale from the 1930s: Seventy years ago, Britain and Europe could not rouse themselves to focus on a looming war; today, we can't rouse ourselves even to focus on a war that's happening right now. Read 100 percent of the Democratic presidential candidates' platforms and a sizeable chunk of the Republicans': We're full of pseudo-energy for phantom crises and ersatz enemies, like "global warming.''
The other day I was reading an account of the latest genius idea from Britain. The carbon emission-trading system imposed by Kyoto is absurd and entirely ineffectual, but in London David Cameron now wants to apply it to hamburgers. Over there, a Big Mac costs three bucks or so. But, if children eat too many, the consequent problems of juvenile obesity will be a further strain on the National Health Service. So Cameron wants to impose some sort of Kyotoesque calorie-trading system on fast-food purveyors whereby McDonald's would have some trans fat cap imposed on it to ensure they pick up the tab for what that $3 Big Mac really costs society.
And David Cameron is the leader of the alleged Conservative Party.
He's also living in a country whose major cities have been hollowed out by Islamist cells. Nevertheless, as England decays into Somalia with chip shops, taxing the chip shops is the Conservatives' priority.
The civilized world faces profound challenges that threaten the global order. But most advanced democracies now run two-party systems in which both parties sell themselves to the electorate on the basis of unaffordable entitlements whose costs can be kicked down the road, even though the road is a short cul-de-sac and the kicked cans are already piled sky-high. That's the real energy crisis.
©Mark Steyn 2007