»  National Review Online

September 19th, 2002

  The BSD Factor


[Note: Looking over this piece as written, and recalling my September 3 exhortation to KBO, I fear I am at risk of accusations that I have become addicted to TLAs.*  I therefore promise that I shall lay off the TLAs for a while, once I have got today's off my chest.]

"BSD" stands for an expression I really prefer in its full form. The expression has a nice, rich, round, loud, American ring to it — notwithstanding the fact that I first picked it up from a book written by Michael Lewis. Working as a bond trader for Salomon Brothers in the early 1980s, Lewis introduced the BSD expression to his readers, including me. On the trading floor where Lewis worked, a BSD was a trader who had completed a big, gutsy deal, generally one to the great advantage of the firm but very little to the advantage of the sucker at the counterparty end of the deal.

The reason I have hidden BSD behind an acronym is that it's a bit indelicate. The generality of NRO readers are sensitive, genteel people, who stick out their pinkies when holding a teacup, and I do not want to scandalize your feelings. Suffice it to say that the "B" stands for "big," the "S" for "swinging," and the "D" for a regrettable, though rather common, four-letter word for the male organ of generation.

Here is what I have to say: I want my new country, this amazing USA, to be a BSD in the world. Now, I am, of course, not unique or original in nursing this desire. Lots of Americans want us to be a BSD. A lot of other people, in a lot of other places, would like their country to be a BSD, at least locally. Probably Saddam Hussein dreams of being the BSD of the Middle East. There is no doubt at all that China wants to be the BSD of East Asia. And however you feel about the desirability of BSD-ness, you might say that we are, willy nilly (apologies there to British and Australian readers, and Shakespeare scholars), the world's premier BSD by virtue of our economic, cultural, and military prowess. Yes, yes: but being a BSD is not merely a matter of … endowment. It is much more a matter of attitude.

The key point, so far as nations are concerned — I left the world of bond traders behind a couple of paragraphs ago — is to stay carefully on the right side of the line that separates a BSD from an arrogant bully. Both a BSD and a bully are feared by some and hated by others, but the vital difference is in the proportions of fearers and haters, and in the fact that a BSD, if he gets it right, can also receive genuine respect, a thing that human nature denies to bullies. We are going to be hated by some people, no matter what we do; but we should try to minimize hatred, maximize fear, and encourage respect.

This is, of course, ferociously difficult to do — a very tricky balancing act. As the to-ing and fro-ing over Iraq proceeds, I am mentally awarding points to the Bush administration for their skill in managing the BSD problem. Up to the President's UN speech, I thought they were doing quite well. However, I agree with Michael Ledeen that Bush made a mistake when, in that speech, he left an escape hatch for Iraq by asking for a renewal of inspections. Not only for Iraq, either: the UN Security Council (not to mention certain zip codes in Washington, DC) is full of people who will seize gratefully on anything that postpones, for as long as possible, actual military action.

I don't think Bush's UN error was a fatal one, though. If — and I confess I remain unconvinced on this point, though not as unconvinced as Mark Helprin — the administration really has the guts to take us to war against Iraq, the "inspections" two-step offers opportunities as well as obstacles. Every hesitation by Iraq, every attempt by them to impose a condition, every evasive maneuver, adds to our case. And if, as many think, the administration actually has decided on a military campaign, but not before the winter, when our troops can deply in NBC**  gear, then a few weeks of shilly-shallying won't matter.

The heartening thing about Bush's UN speech was that he went there as a BSD, and was received in that spirit. It is clear now that if we are firm, consistent, clear in our objectives, and appear capable, then enough countries will stand with us that those who don't will not matter. There has been a lot of false dichotomizing about the right way to deal with the rest of the world in this business, along the lines of:

Either  (1) We must consult, confer, cultivate, propagandize, lobby, show deference to "international opinion," stick to the legalities, show respect to the world's elder statesmen … in short, be "good Europeans."
Or  (2) Let 'em howl. If they don't like our approach, they can suck on it. We can do this on our own.

My argument is that neither (1) nor (2) is really satisfactory. I favor something in between. Not precisely in between — not a (1½). More like:

(1¾) Make it quietly, but unmistakably, clear that we are the BSD. Then, watch them fall into line — enough of them, at any rate, to make the rest irrelevant.

Number (1) is fine for countries like Denmark, whose size and location gives them no other choice. Number (2) is the bully approach, which I don't think is tenable for a trading nation, however militarily supreme. (Did you know that the USA not only has the world's biggest air force, but also the second and third biggest?) I think, furthermore, that (2) goes against the grain of our national character in many ways.

Number (2) in fact leads us into ODM territory. "ODM" stands for oderint dum metuant, which is Latin for: "Let them hate us, so long as they fear us." BSD and ODM are not entirely unrelated. Obviously you need a BSD in order to practice ODM; the first is, as mathematicians say, a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for the second. But while ODM was all very well for ancient Rome, the only civilized power in its world, all the way to its horizon, I don't believe it will work for us, a commercial republic, in a world still trying to find some equilibrium point after the collapse of the USSR. My preference is for BSD, but well short of ODM. AOK with that?

* "Three-Letter Acronyms," of course.

** "Nuclear, biological and chemical warfare." That was the TLA in use during my brief military career in England. The US military uses some different one I have forgotten.