December 16, 2005,
Lancing the Boil
We quietly keep on killing terrorists, promoting elections in Iraq, pressuring Arab autocracies to democratize, and growing the economy.
For some time, a large number of Americans have lived in an alternate universe where everything is supposedly going to hell. If you get up in the morning to read the New York Times or Washington Post, watch John Murtha or Howard Dean on the morning talk shows, listen to National Public Radio at noon, and go to bed reading Newsweek it surely seems that the administration is incommunicado (cf. “the bubble”), the war is lost (“unwinnable”), the Great Depression is back (“jobless recovery”), and America about as popular as Nazi Germany abroad (“alone and isolated”).
But in the real adult world, the economy is red-hot, not mired in joblessness or relegating millions to poverty. Unemployment is low, so are interest rates. Growth is high, as is consumer spending and confidence. Our Katrina was hardly as lethal as the Tsunami or Pakistani earthquake. Thousands of Arabs are not rioting in Dearborn. American elderly don’t roast and die in the thousands in their apartments as was true in France. Nor do American cities, like some in China, lose their entire water supply to a toxic spill. Americans did not just vote to reject their own Constitution as in some European countries.
The military isn’t broken. Unlike after Vietnam when the Russians, Iranians, Cambodians, and Nicaraguans all soon tried to press their luck at our expense, most of our adversaries don’t believe the U.S. military is losing in Iraq, much less that it is wise now to take it on. Instead, the general impression is that our veteran and battle-hardened forces are even more lethal than was true of the 1990s and engaging successfully in an almost impossible war.
Nor are we creating new hordes of terrorists in Iraq as if a young male Middle Eastern fundamentalist first hates the United States only on news that it is in Iraq crafting a new Marshall Plan of $87 billion and offering a long-oppressed people democracy after taking out Saddam Hussein. Even al Jazeera cannot turn truth into untruth forever.
Instead, the apprentice jihadist is trying to win his certification as master terrorist by trying his luck against the U.S. Marines abroad rather than on another World Trade Center at home and failing quite unlike September 11.
Like it or not, wars are usually won or lost when one side feels its losses are too high to continue. We have suffered terribly in losing 2,100 dead in Iraq; a vastly smaller enemy in contrast may have experienced tens of thousands of terrorists killed, and is finding its safe havens and money drying up. Panic about Iraq abounds in both the American media and the periodic fatwas of Dr. Zawahiri but not in the U. S. government or armed forces.
The world does not hate the United States. Of course, it envies us. Precisely because it is privately impressed by our unparalleled success, it judges America by a utopian measure in which anything less than perfection is written off as failure. We risk everything, our critics abroad almost nothing. So the hope for our failures naturally gives reinforcement to the bleak reality of their inaction.
The Europeans expect our protection. The Mexicans risk their lives to get here. Indians and Japanese want closer relations. The old commonwealth appreciates our strength in defense of the West. Even the hostile Iranians, North Koreans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Chinese, and radical Islamists despite the saber-rattling rhetoric wonder whether we are naïve and idealistic rather than cruel and calculating. All this we rarely consider when we read of anti-Americanism in our major newspapers or hear another angry (and usually well-off) professor or journalist recite our sins.
Al Zarqawi is in a classical paradox: He can’t defeat the American or Iraqi security forces or stop the elections. So he must dream up ever more macabre violence to gain notoriety from beheading Americans on the television to mass murdering Shiites to blowing up third-party Jordanians. But such lashing out only further weakens his cause and makes the efforts of his enemies on the battlefield easier, as his Sunni base starts to see that this psychopath really can take his supporters all down with him.
The Palestine problem is not even worse off after Iraq. Actually, it is far better with the isolated and disgraced Arafat gone, the fence slowly inching ahead, the worst radical Islamic terrorists on the West Bank in paradise, Israel out of Gaza, and the world gradually accepting its diplomatic presence. The real hopeless mess was 1992-2000 when a well-meaning Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright, and Dennis Ross still deluded themselves that a criminal gang leader like Yasser Arafat was a legitimate head of state or that you could start to end an endless war by giving his thugs thousands of M-16s.
The European way is not the answer, as we see from the farcical negotiations over Iran’s time bomb. Struggling with a small military, unsustainable entitlement promises, little real economic growth, high unemployment, falling birth rates, angry unassimilated minorities, and a suicidal policy of estrangement from its benefactor the United States, Europeans show already an 11th-hour change of heart as we see in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and soon in France.
Europe’s policy about Iran’s nuclear program can best be summed up as “Hurry up, sane and Western Israel, and take out this awful thing so we can damn you Zionist aggressors for doing so in our morning papers.”
The administration did not prove nearly as inept in the Iraqi reconstruction as the rhetoric of its opposition was empty. The government’s chief lapse was not claiming the moral high ground for a necessary war against a fascist mass murderer an inexplicable silence now largely addressed by George Bush’s new muscular public defense of the war. In contrast, we can sadly recall all the alternative advice of past critics across the spectrum: invade Iraq in 1998, but get out right now; trisect Iraq; attack Syria or Iran; retreat to the Shiite south; put in hundreds of thousands of more troops; or delay the elections.
Donald Rumsfeld’s supposed gaffe of evoking “Old Europe” is trumped tenfold and almost daily by slurs that depict Abu Ghraib as worse than Saddam, Guantanamo as the work of Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot, Bush as the world’s greatest terrorist, the effort to democratize Iraq as unwinnable, and American troops terrorizing Iraqi women and children.
Most Americans may grumble after reading the latest demonization in the press of Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, but they are hardly ready to turn over a complex Middle East to something like a President John Kerry, Vice President Barbara Boxer, Secretary of State Howard Dean, National Security Advisor Nancy Pelosi, and Secretary of Defense John Murtha with a kitchen cabinet of Jimmy Carter and Sandy Berger.
So at year’s end, what then is happening at home and abroad?
For the last three years we have seen a carbuncle swell as the old Vietnam War opposition rematerialized, with Michael Moore, the Hollywood elite, and Cindy Sheehan scaring the daylights out of the Democratic establishment that either pandered to or triangulated around their crazy rhetoric. The size of the Islamicist/Baathist insurrection caught the United States for a time off guard, as was true also of the sudden vehement slurs from our erstwhile allies in Europe, Canada, and Asia. Few anticipated that the turmoil in Iraq would force the Syrians out of Lebanon, the Libyans to give up their WMDs, and the Egyptians to hold elections and that all the killing, acrimony, and furor over these developments would begin to engulf the Middle East and threaten the old order.
In the face of that growing ulcer of discontent, we quietly kept on killing terrorists, promoting elections in Iraq, pressuring Arab autocracies to democratize, and growing the economy. All that is finally lancing the boil, here and abroad and what was in there all along is now slowly oozing out, making the cure seem almost as gross as the malady.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.