As the Iranian nuclear threat continues to grow, neither the United States nor Israel are eager to be damned by the global community for sending in bombers to take out Tehran's dispersed and hard-to-find subterranean nuclear factories. Meanwhile, European diplomats will fail in their milquetoast efforts to bribe the Iranian mullahs to forgo nukes. And a peaceful revolution that leads to a new Iranian democracy renouncing such weapons remains a utopian dream.
So, the practical and, realistically, best solution to thwarting Iran's nuclear-weapon ambitions would be for the Russians to cease selling the Iranians nuclear technology. They could demand – not just suggest – that all uranium enrichment for "peaceful" energy use be done inside Russia.
Yet for all their talk, the Russians will not do this. Besides the profits to be had from trading with the oil-rich theocracy, the Russians derive a certain satisfaction from tweaking the United States. After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss of global influence, the Russians gain at least psychic satisfaction knowing that the Iranians are a thorn in the U.S.'s side. Moscow enjoys observing that Washington doesn't always get its way – and may find itself overwhelmed with a nuclear enemy on the doorstep of the newly democratic Iraq.
China plays the same spoiler role in regard to North Korea. Ostensibly, it has no desire to see Kim Jong-il with a nuclear arsenal on its already unstable border. But the Chinese apparently see advantages in allowing a renegade regime to drive their rivals crazy, especially Japan, Taiwan and the United States.
So in the manner of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, the Chinese leadership will promise to play a "constructive role." Meanwhile, the Americans can worry themselves sick over whether Los Angeles will soon be in range of a nut with a nuclear-tipped missile.
And then, next to Iraq, there is our "ally" Saudi Arabia sitting atop about a quarter of the earth's known petroleum reserves. On the one hand, it would do the Saudi royal family no good to see Iraq degenerate into a terrorist-filled Lebanon on its border. Yet, the Saudis also tire of the busybody Americans reforming the Middle East and birthing democracy at their doorstep. The Saudis have the power to cut off funding for radical Islamic charities and madrassas. They could discourage Wahhabi mullahs in Iraq's Sunni Triangle. And they could pour billions of investment dollars into Iraqi reconstruction.
Yet they probably won't do any of that. Seeing the United States spend lives and billions of dollars in an unpopular war in Iraq brings them schadenfreude as well – and fewer sermons from the U.S. about women driving to the polls to vote in free elections.
In terms of long-term security, the Russians, Chinese and Saudis may privately sort of hope the United States is successful in defanging Iran and North Korea and stabilizing Iraq. After all, who wants rogue regimes with nukes and terrorists getting too carried away and harming business?
And yet by costing the American sheriff time, money, lives and popularity, these problems keep the United States busy enough to leave others be. Iran, North Korea and jihadists in Baghdad are all more likely to target Americans anyway than Russians, Chinese or Saudis.
Even so-called allies like the Europeans more or less play the wink-and-nod game. They likewise are full of pride but void of real conventional military power. So Euros hope that the Americans can corral Iran and North Korea, and succeed in Iraq – but not in an easy enough fashion that adds to already ample American prestige.
What can we learn from all this? All these machinations have little to do with a supposedly insensitive George Bush suddenly "losing" our goodwill abroad. Rather, long-standing envy, hurt over the lack of global influence and the quest for profit more likely guide Russian, Chinese, Saudi and, to an extent, European policies in the post-Cold War American era.
We should expect allies and neutrals to ankle-bite rather than help. Meanwhile, the United States must press on in its efforts to deny nuclear weapons to rogue regimes and hunt down terrorists.
Strategic missile defense will prove invaluable in the decades ahead against regimes that have only a few dozen warheads. Staying in Iraq until the new democracy there is firmly established and defeats the insurrection will drive the theocrats in Iran and Saudi Arabia crazy in fear that democracies soon may spread their way. And there are also more valuable partners, such as the Japanese, Indians, Australians and British, who can come to the fore to battle the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorism.
Finally, we can be far more quiet abroad about our intentions while carrying an even bigger stick. In other words, wrinkle our brow, bite our lip and praise the United Nations and multilateralism to the skies publicly – while acknowledging that ultimately only the American military can keep the United States safe.