It's tempting, although not entirely fair, to look at the developing U.S. confrontations these days with Iraq and North Korea and blame Bill Clinton. What's disconcerting is that those who let the United States get into this mess still don't get it. They still think the bad guys will keep their word.
During Clinton's watch, the United States failed to demonstrate the fortitude that, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, could have forced those nations to live up to their agreements.
As a homeowner, parent or medical patient knows, festering problems don't cure themselves. Small concerns must be dealt with, no matter how inconvenient the timing, before they get out of control.
In the case of hostile nations developing weapons of mass destruction, such as North Korea and Iraq, that means acting when the problem becomes clear, even if that means not taking the easy way out and leaving the problem for someone else to solve later.
Looking the other way, as Clinton did with Iraq's obvious treaty non-compliance four years ago, or trying to buy off North Korea, as he opted to do almost a decade ago, was the path of least resistance but of maximum stupidity.
However, although Clinton and his team clearly dropped the ball, they did so because the American people let them. Clinton, who probably never met a pollster he didn't like, understood that Americans were fat and happy during the 1990s. They didn't want to do what was difficult -- spotlight the violations -- because it inevitably would lead to potential military confrontations.
When the U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998 because Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate, despite the monitoring being a condition of his surrender in the Gulf War of 1991, the Clinton administration did little of long-term consequence. Hussein may be evil, but he is not stupid. He correctly interpreted that response as a green light to continue on his merry, bomb-building way.
The North Koreans agreed to a Clinton bribe in the form of 1994 economic aid to dismantle their nuclear program. Clinton says he considered bombing their nuclear facility, but if the problem was that serious, why did he then allow North Korea two light-water nuclear reactors, allegedly to generate electricity? He could have insisted on a fuel-oil plant. He also allowed North Korea to keep enough spent nuclear fuel rods containing enough material to build a half-dozen nuclear bombs.
Clinton may have been a great politician, but I wouldn't want to stake him at a poker game. The North Koreans successfully bet that the United States wouldn't call their bluff and went ahead with their weapons program on the sly.
What's especially disconcerting are the voices of former Clinton administration officials and supporters criticizing President Bush's willingness to stand up when it is needed. They caution us that America needs to be part of a multinational force against Iraq (nice, but not necessary), and that refusing to knuckle under to the North Korean nuclear blackmail is dangerous. (Yes, but not nearly so dangerous as letting the North Koreans proceed.)
However, Clinton and his crew don't deserve all the blame. Americans put him in office knowing that he lacked expertise in foreign affairs. They knew that he had no rapport with the military and had staffed his administration with many policy-makers who, while perhaps not being card-carrying members of the "blame America first" crowd, certainly had gone to their parties.
We let him cut the Pentagon budget and demoralize much of the military. Clearly, he understood that many Americans want to bend over backward to avoid confrontations. That's understandable, and often wise, because military action isn't always the best, or even a good, alternative.
Sometimes, however, the national interest requires difficult, even unpopular, decisions.
There are too many Americans, perhaps baby boomers still scarred by Vietnam or those who believe the United States needs to apologize for its economic and military strength -- too many who have never met a confrontation from which they instinctively don't shirk.
The lessons of history are pretty clear. Appeasement doesn't work. Had Britain and France dealt with Adolf Hitler when he began knocking over small countries, and was much less powerful than he would become, the world would have averted the bloodiest war in its history.
I hope that we can finally learn this lesson before we have to pay too heavy a price.