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 Interests and Friendships 

February 24, 2005 
President Bush has met with Vladimir Putin, alternately praising and scolding the Russian president, with whom he is said to have a warm “personal relationship,” Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them.even a “friendship.”

Charles de Gaulle used to say that great nations have only interests, not friends. One wonders if Bush understands this. He seems to place undue reliance on personal chemistry with foreign rulers. He thinks he is incapable of being deceived by a man whose eyes he has gazed into. This is a pretty naive attitude to bring to international politics, where intrigue outweighs benevolence.

Last week, when Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated, the Bush administration was quick to blame Syria — as most Lebanese themselves did. The Syrian government condemned the murder and denied the charge. And it would have been pretty stupid to arrange a crime for which it was bound to be the first suspect. Still, Syria can’t be ruled out — but neither can others.

Cui bono? Who actually stood to gain from increased turbulence in Lebanon, with recriminations against Syria? Could Hariri’s murder have been a Mossad operation? There is no obvious reason to exclude the possibility. It wouldn’t be the first time the Israelis have targeted someone outside their borders for assassination, when they deemed it in their interest.

The Israelis have also conducted espionage and technology theft operations against the United States; they may call America their “friend,” but they aren’t sentimental about it. They’ve learned that their “friend” will put up with anything they do.

Now we are told that al-Qaeda is trying to get nuclear weapons to use against the United States. Some experts think there is a good chance that it will succeed in the next few years.

Considering how the United States freaked out after the 9/11 attacks, we can hardly imagine the reaction to a nuclear explosion in this country. At the very least, the response would probably be devastating assaults on the supposed “sponsors of terror,” Iran and Syria, which are already being targeted.

[Breaker quote: Real enemies and false friends]The trouble is that we might never know who was actually responsible for such an explosion. Russia and Israel already have the weapons Saddam Hussein turned out not to have, and both are capable of smuggling a nuke into this country. And they both know that Bush would never suspect them. Given his “personal relationships” with both Putin and Israel’s Ariel Sharon, whom he regards as “a man of peace,” either of them might decide such an operation was worth the risk, if others could be plausibly blamed.

Even the outside chance of discovery would probably be too great a risk to take. But the point is that in today’s international climate, we could never know who had detonated a nuclear blast within our borders. It might be an avowed enemy or an ostensible friend.

After all, the culprit might simply be an Osama bin Laden who had found a nuclear salesman, Pakistani or North Korean, on the black market; or it might be an Ariel Sharon who had decided to frame his enemies in the Middle East; or it might be someone else whose motives were unfathomable.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t as transparent as Bush assumes. We can’t always know who our friends (if any) are, or what they see as their interests. We’ve been surprised too often to go on believing that events are predictable, let alone under our control.

Bush has been too eager to be suspicious of some foreign powers, while far too trusting toward others. He doesn’t see the dangers of unwarranted trust, apparently deeming it inconceivable that anyone he has pronounced his friend could ever take advantage of him.

But neatly dividing the world into two camps — democratic and undemocratic — is neither accurate nor sensible. These broad categories are moralistic rather than practical, and a lot of mischief can go on behind the façade of democracy, as Americans ought to know.

In his farewell address, George Washington warned that the United States might be misled even by “affection” for other nations. The safest posture in foreign affairs is that prudent aloofness which we used to maintain, but which is now damned as “isolationism.” The opposite policy, a frenetic interventionism, has brought us nothing but grief. And it will bring us even more in the years ahead.

Joseph Sobran

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