Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
The foreign policy of most Western countries is based on the comforting assumption that the rulers of all members of the “international community” share their desire for a quiet life and would very much like to concentrate on economic development. Unfortunately, a cursory glance at what has happened in the past and what is going on today suggests that this is far from being the case. Cultures that produce suicide bombers by the thousands could well produce national leaders who, for arcane theological or ideological reasons, would welcome a chance to destroy their own country if they could take some others along with it.
The Israelis understand this better than most, but most Europeans and many North Americans think they are being simpleminded when they insist that the bloodthirsty Iranian theocrats, the Sunni Jihadists and others like them really mean it they say they want to wage a war of extermination against the Jewish State. For similar reasons, Donald Trump is derided for taking seriously Kim Jong-un’s threat to reduce the White House to radioactive ashes.
Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea could devastate South Korea; after a couple of hours, an artillery bombardment would leave much of Seoul in ruins and huge numbers of people dead. With nuclear weapons, the hermit kingdom now has Japan, the United States, China, Russia and most other countries in its sights. Perhaps, with China’s help, the sanctions ordered by Trump will prove enough to put the wretched North Korean economy out of its misery, but they could also tempt Kim to stage a suicidal last stand, as so many of his ilk have done before him.
Containing Kim will not be easy. Neither will be the attempts to prevent the ayatollahs running the Islamic Republic of Iran from emulating their atheistic ally. Had the two rogue states been subjected to far fiercer pressures 30 or 40 more years ago, both might have been defanged without much loss of life, but back then most people assumed that, sooner or later, their leaders would decide that economic development mattered far more than their ideological or theological hang-ups and would act accordingly. That was just another pious illusion.
Old-fashioned Christians, among them Pope Francis, think Baudelaire was right when he said that “the devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
Though it is unlikely that the famously satanic poet expected to be taken literally by most of his readers, he was clearly on to something. As he well knew, throughout the centuries evildoers of one kind or another have profited mightily from the devil’s example by taking advantage of decent people’s reluctance to believe they could possibly be as viciously ruthless as they boasted they were.
Neville Chamberlain provided the classic example of what happens when you underestimate an enemy’s capacity to do nasty things in September 1938. When he met Adolf Hitler in Munich, he wanted to believe that he was dealing with a misunderstood statesman whose word he could trust, a person who, deep down, only wanted peace and to be respected by his peers. That proved to be such a disastrous mistake that for decades Western leaders would be wary about anything that smacked of appeasement.
Attitudes started to change when politicians realised that, while getting rid of obnoxious dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi in the name of democracy had its merits, they would then be expected to take charge of the countries they had ruled. In the old imperialist days many would have been more than happy to do just that, but now they feel the task is beyond them.
That no doubt is why the consensus is that the West, meaning the US, should take a more nuanced approach towards dangerous regimes, including those that would dearly like to get their hands on nuclear weapons plus whatever would be needed for them hit their targets. It is also why so many people have reached the conclusion that, when you think about it, Trump is as evil as North Korea’s Kim and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali.
In what is fast becoming the standard view, a few billion dollars plus some fulsomely flattering words would take care of Kim. As for the Iranian theocrats, it is assumed that they could never take seriously apocalyptic guff like that spouted by their former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he told the United Nations that the 12th Iman Al-Mahdi, who went into “occlusion” in the ninth century, would shortly emerge from his hiding place to usher in “a new beginning, a rebirth and a resurrection. It will be the beginning of peace, lasting security and genuine life,” a reign that “will bring about an eternally bright future for mankind, not by force or waging wars but through thought awakening and developing kindness in everyone.” Of course, to make that happen the “Zionist entity,” Israel, would have to be expunged from the face of the earth.
To the dismay of other politicians, he even says as much. He also assumes that the North Koreans and Iranians are doing their best to deceive the rest of the world about their real intentions. On both counts, Trump is probably right, but the implications are so frightening that most Western politicians and commentators desperately want to think that he has got it all utterly wrong and that – despite their often outlandish behaviour – the current leaders of North Korea and Iran are sensible people who would never dream of provoking a catastrophe.