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The New Defeatism

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The New Defeatism

Are we giving up, even as we're succeeding?

by Victor Davis Hanson

June 04, 2004

Nothing has been quite as depressing as watching Washington and New York melt down during these past two months. History in D.C. is apparently measured by hours, not decades — and its lessons are gleaned from last night's reruns.

Liberal pundits went ballistic over Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. Worse still, many conservatives bailed or triangulated. Meanwhile, bin Laden's clique talks endlessly of payback for Jerusalem, Afghanistan, and Iraq — jettisoning the casus belli of his 1998 fatwa about U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the U.N. blockade — even as our elites, aping the Spanish, claim that only Iraq stirred up terrorism.

In somber tones newscasters assure us of all sorts of bad things to come. But our soldiers have continued to fight in Iraq as the plans for transition have inched forward. So let us review the conventional ignorance and ponder what exactly is our national affliction.

No Plan? For those who think that we are either incompetent or disingenuous in Iraq, look at Kurdistan, where seven million people live under humane government with less than 300 American troops. How did that happen? The people of Kurdistan are Islamic, often quarrelsome folks — in the heart of the Middle East — now residing in relative safety and autonomy, and expressing good will toward the United States. They accept that we don't want Kurdish oil any more than we want to take over the sands and slums of the Sunni Triangle. So the problem in central Iraq is not us, but rather the fact that unlike Kurdistan — which had a decade of transition toward consensual society thanks to Anglo-American pilots — the country is reeling from 30 years of autocracy, in which Islamic fascism offered an alternative of sorts to an ossified Soviet-style dictatorship.

We have always had a "plan" in Iraq — it was to leave the country something like its northern third in Kurdistan. Precisely because it was costly, idealistic, and dangerous, we should expect a lot of killing and bombing in the next few months as an array of opponents tries to derail the upcoming transition and elections. Anyone who thinks thousands of Islamic fascists and out-of-work Baathists won't want to stop the region's first consensual government is unhinged. But, again, for all our mistakes of omission there was and is a plan — and it is now slowly coming to messy fruition. Even after the spring nightmare, we do not hear many Iraqis saying, "Leave right now and take your stinking $87 billion with you," much less, "Give us back Saddam" or "Quit stealing our oil for your cheap gas."

Neoconservatives? Let us be frank. This appellation is no longer a descriptive term of so-called "new conservatives," those members of the eastern intelligentsia who were rather liberal on some domestic hot-button issues (tolerant of open borders, quiet about abortion, indifferent to gay marriage, etc.), but promoted a proactive neo-Wilsonian idealism in foreign policy (whether in the Balkans in taking out Milosevic or in trying to replace Saddam Hussein with democracy rather than a Shah-like proconsul).

Instead, face the ugly fact: "Neocon" is now a slur for "Jew." General Zinni (who once boasted that 600 to 2,000 Iraqis were eliminated from the air in his Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign) is now ubiquitous on television hawking his new book, criticizing the war (on Memorial Day, no less), and being praised in the Arab news as he talks about "Perle, Wolfowitz, and Feith" and all those who purportedly got us into Iraq.

"Cabal" and "Nazi-like" are also used by others and with increasing frequency to promote the old idea of crafty, sneaky people pulling the wool over honest naifs (no doubt aw-shucks, unsophisticated folks such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice). A shameful Senator Hollings has no apologies for claiming that our policy was misdirected for Israel's sake. Even a saucer-eyed Al Gore got into the spirit of things. Recently he screamed out the names of those who must walk his plank, and went into an exorcist-like trance when his vein-bulging, spinning-head got to spitting out the name "Woolfwoootizzzzz."

If there was advice from a "bloc" of so-called neoconservatives, it has not "failed," but is in fact already working even as we caricature it: We've taken out Saddam; we are on the eve of a transition to an autonomous reform government; and we are shooting the enemy 7,000 miles away, rather than being murdered at Ground Zero. And, by any historical standard, we are fighting in both an economical and humane fashion.

Israel? Most of us are tired of reading daily that Israel is making problems for us. It is a liberal democracy and currently in the throes of a national debate about whether to withdraw from a territory, Gaza, from which it was attacked in three wars. Its uniformed military targets terrorists; its main opponent's terrorists seek to kill civilians. We should have more confidence in its free press, elected officials, and voting citizenry to craft a humane policy — under threat of suicide murdering, no less — than in all the corrupt and fascistic regimes that surround it. It once took out — at great risk to itself — Iraq's nuclear reactor; it did not sell the reactor at great profit or take control of that country's oil.

If this caring world is worried about the injustice of a fence or Islamaphobia, then start slurring nuclear India for its $1 billion fence, which shuts off the entire (impoverished Muslim) country of Bangladesh — a far harsher blow to far more millions than Israel's so-called "Wall" aimed at stopping suicide killing.

If we hate the principle of "occupied lands," then let Europe cease trade with China and hector that dictatorial government about the cultural obliteration of occupied Tibet.

If we are truly worried about violence, then let the U.N. and the EU turn their attention to Nigeria, where thousands are murdered yearly.

If the death of tens of thousands of Muslims and the desecration of mosques bother the Arab League, then let them blast the Arabs of the Sudan, who are systematically and in the most racist fashion butchering black Muslims.

But if after all that we have still not gotten our bearings, then let us rail about Sharon and the "occupation," and thus enable the Arab world to forget its self-induced misery and find psychic reassurance, as Europe too often has, by blaming Jews.

No al Qaeda links? Equally bothersome is the old canard, "Saddam was a secularist and hated al Qaeda" — as though simultaneous enemies of America have always shared the same ideology. Just ask the Japanese and Germans, or the Chinese and Russians, who agreed to set aside their mutual hatred to fight us for being emissaries of freedom. Under the Clinton administration it was considered standard intelligence dogma that Osama and Saddam worked together; only the controversy over Iraq has post-facto questioned that former pillar of American and European intelligence doctrine — and for entirely political reasons.

There was a reason Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas were in Baghdad. And it was the same reason why al Qaeda was working in Kurdistan, why al Zarqawi went to Baghdad to Saddam's doctors, why there is good reason to believe that before the first World Trade Center bombing the culpable terrorists had ties with Iraqi intelligence, and why seized documents now coming to light in Iraq reveal a long history of cooperation between Islamic terrorists and Saddam's secret police. To think otherwise would be crazy, given the shared aims of both in attacking Americans and getting them out of the Middle East. The only puzzle is whether Saddam contributed to the 9/11 terrorist fund or simply was apprised of al Qaeda's general efforts.

Our Real Dilemma. We do have a grave problem in this country, but it is not the plan for Iraq, the neoconservatives, or targeting Saddam. Face it: This present generation of leaders at home would never have made it to Normandy Beach. They would instead have called off the advance to hold hearings on Pearl Harbor, cast around blame for the Japanese internment, sued over the light armor and guns of Sherman tanks, apologized for bombing German civilians, and recalled General Eisenhower to Washington to explain the rough treatment of Axis prisoners.

We are becoming a crazed culture of cheap criticism and pious moralizing, and in our self-absorption may well lose what we inherited from a better generation. Our groaning and hissing elite indulges itself, while better but forgotten folks risk their lives on our behalf in pretty horrible places.

Judging from our newspapers, we seem to care little about the soldiers while they are alive and fighting, but we suddenly put their names on our screens and speak up when a dozen err or die. And, in the latter case, our concern is not out of respect for their sacrifice but more likely a protest against what we don't like done in our name. So ABC's Nightline reads the names of the fallen from Iraq, but not those from the less controversial Afghanistan, because ideological purity — not remembering the departed per se — is once again the real aim.

Our very success after September 11 — perhaps because of the Patriot Act, the vigilance of domestic-security agencies, and the global reach of our military — has prevented another catastrophe of mass murder, but also allowed us to become complacent, and thus once more cynical and near suicidal. We can afford to be hypercritical and so groan at a Rudolph Giuliani at the 9/11 hearings only because brave men and women prevented more suicide bombings. We caricature our efforts in Iraq and demonize a good man like Paul Wolfowitz, even as a courageous and competent military took out Saddam in three weeks — and, in far less than the time that the occupations took in Germany and Japan (likewise both written off as failures of the times) allowed an autonomous and soon-to-be-elected government to take over.

Partisanship about the war earlier on established the present sad paradox of election-year politicking: Good news from Iraq is seen as bad news for John Kerry, and vice versa. If that seems too harsh a judgment, we should ask whether Terry McAuliffe would prefer, as would the American people, Osama bin Laden captured in June, more sarin-laced artillery shells found in July, al-Zarqawi killed in August, al-Sadr tried and convicted by Iraqi courts in September, an October sense of security and calm in Baghdad, and Syria pulling a Libya in November.

These depressing times really are much like the late 1960s, when only a few dared to plead that Hue and Tet were not abject defeats, but rare examples of American courage and skill. But now as then, the louder voice of defeatism smothers all reason, all perspective, all sense of balance — and so the war is not assessed in terms of five years but rather by the last five hours of ignorant punditry. Shame on us all.

Historic forces of the ages are in play. If we can just keep our sanity a while longer, accept our undeniable mistakes, learn from them, and press on, Iraq really will emerge as the constitutional antithesis of Saddam Hussein, and that will be a good and noble thing — impossible without America and its most amazing military.

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