Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

It’s a Vision Thing

Language is as powerful as armed force.

Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

War takes a toll on democratic leaders, often either discrediting, sickening, or killing them. Pericles died near the beginning of the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War that he felt was inevitable and critical to the survival of Athens — after popular opinion turned on him, and the plague, together with age, broke his health. A weary Lincoln was murdered by a zealot on the eve of victory; Roosevelt’s fragile health was finally ruined by the strain. After the armistice Wilson had no energy for his utopian postbellum agenda. Churchill got a vote of no confidence even before the shooting stopped — an electorate’s thanks for his efforts in saving Britain. Truman was exhausted, and by the end of his term made unpopular by Korea; Johnson was crushed by Vietnam. The elder Bush was buoyed by the Gulf War victory — its ground phase a four-day walkover — but misinterpreted the nation’s ebullience as amnesia about a recession, and so lost a seemingly untouchable double-digit lead in the polls.

So it is hard to lead a democratic society in war, when domestic opposition, the volatile events on the battlefield, and a fickle and moody electorate can all conspire to wreck an executive. Masterful politicians like Roosevelt and Churchill, however, could muffle rivals and uplift their citizenries through dark times by deft rhetoric and heartfelt concern for the suffering of the average citizen. By 1940 Roosevelt’s New Deal was in trouble, as the Depression showed little sign of abating in the face of Herculean efforts to reinvent government; ever-increasing federal programs had only fueled the concerns of skeptical conservatives without alleviating endemic poverty. The war and Roosevelt’s brilliant rhetoric alone brought a fourth term. The baffling paradox about Churchill was not that he was thrown out on the eve of victory, but that an often-blunt reactionary was able to wield power at all at a time when England’s growing economic problems and war exhaustion had made his socialist opponents appear attractive. Rhetoric, brilliance in impromptu speech, appeals for shared sacrifice, even eccentricity — all those ensured his survival.

President Bush can learn from successful war leaders of the past in our present time of crisis. The shenanigans on Wall Street present him with myriad problems, as many in his administration have a past intimacy with murky stock options and the world of Byzantine deals simply unknown to most Americans. His free-market Right bristles at any hint of a massive clean-up of corporate protocol; and if he barks too loudly, he only makes the Democratic case for which he will earn scorn rather than admiration.

Yet, what is really needed is a speech that makes sense of the crimes on Wall Street in terms of the lives of average Americans at a time of war. The destruction of confidence in capital markets, auditing firms, and corporate leadership as the price to enrich a few is not merely criminal but nearly traitorous — for soldiers in the field and ordinary taxpayers who have lost a third to half of their retirement plans and now must pay for a war with borrowed money.

Our president must connect such violations of trust with a betrayal of those Americans now on the field of battle, without access to astronomical earnings but entirely dependent on the ability of American capitalism to supply daily their food and shells. We cannot ask kids from Bakersfield to defend the freedom of Ken Lay to profit illicitly — unless we make it clear that they are, in fact, his moral superiors, who fight in the grime and dirt to save other Americans for the price of a mogul’s shower curtain. So the crime of Wall Street is in its timing as well as in its deceit.

By the same token, the entire mobilization against Iraq must be presented in terms of liberation, not gratuitous attack. We seek to remove a dictator so that thousands of unfree can at last have a chance to sleep without a knock in the night, vote, write a letter to the editor, question a government policy — and not have their treasure and lives diverted to take that of others.

The entire Middle East could use such a language of transcendence. To explain our singular support for Israel, we must repeatedly stress the morality of a democratic state, with elections, and an independent judiciary, attacked by a despot and his gang who rig elections — only upon the assumption of power to abolish them entirely. Where Arafat is vulnerable is his autocracy, corruption, and dictatorial cabal that all go against the very pretensions of the EU and the U.N. — and we should give up on our allies condemning his terror and murder, which bothers them not a whit.

A good start has been the recent (albeit overdue) State Department decision to withhold further increases in aid to Egypt after their arbitrary harassment and jailing of lawful and brave dissidents. More pressure is needed to convey the message to the Arab masses that there are vast changes going on in the world — no doubt all scary and subject to distortion, misinterpretation, and misinformation. But a good barometer of America’s future intentions after September 11 will be our own unapologetic enmity to dangerous autocrats like Saddam Hussein, the mullahs in Iran, and the younger Assad, who kill and torture — and a growing intolerance of continual autocracy among “moderates” in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, who punish independence and silence candor. Only that way can our risky efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq take on any meaning that rises above “regime change.” If we can alter the name of our war against terrorism from “Infinite Justice” to “Enduring Freedom,” then surely we can modify the nomenclature of “regime change” to “liberation” or “emancipation.”

The axis of evil was an appropriate and necessary categorization. But now it should be further elucidated on the basis of sympathy for those forced to live under such criminal regimes — so that the American distinction between unfree peoples and the outlaw governments that enslave them can be laid out in full view.

Europe is impotent in deed when it counts, but self-righteous in word when it does not — being as reluctant to confront evil in the flesh as it is ready to condemn it in the abstract. So far we are taking the greater risks, but getting none of the commensurate credit for undertaking such sacrifice. We must be as bold in our idealistic professions as we are unafraid to use force, conveying the message to the world that, unlike the EU or the U.N., we back pretensions with real soldiers. We live in a world, after all, where Europeans call an elected American president who is fighting killers a “cowboy,” but use qualifiers like “but,” “although,” and “nevertheless” when referring to bringing to justice an outlaw like Saddam Hussein. It is time our president politely but firmly reminded the Europeans that utopianism is worthless unless they act — and their past record in using force to combat evil is dismal. They must realize that Europe is one American unilateral action away from the de facto dissolution of NATO: If we act alone in Iraq to remove a madman with terror weapons, while they heckle from the sidelines — especially after the recent U.S. intervention to rid them of an odious Milosevic — then they are not allies, but no more than nice peoples like the Swiss and the Costa Ricans.

September 11 in so many ways has turned the world upside down. Domestic politics and ideology are no exception. Mr. Bush and his conservatives now have a rare opportunity to seize the day and capture the admiration of all those who aspire for freedom and security. Liberal Jews are increasingly bewildered by the academy’s venom against Israel and the Left’s apparent tolerance of outright murder of Israeli women and children. The multiculturalists have already proven themselves ethically bankrupt — unsure whether it is abjectly wrong or just “different” to conduct female mutilation in the Sudan, chop off arms in Saudi Arabia, teach hatred in Pakistan madrassas, or reprint Mein Kampf on the West Bank. Our own Arabists in the universities and governments seem more intent on protecting the status quo in the Middle East than showing any concern for the millions of unfree citizens of the Arab world. On cue they apologize for Egyptian strongmen or Saudi royals — seemingly oblivious that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not necessarily nice places precisely because of the way they treat their own Arabs. Ask any Arabist about gender apartheid or polygamy in the Islamic world and he will be likely to retort with a contorted exegesis about our inability to understand Islamic feminism.

Mr. Bush — uniquely, so it seems — believes that freedom, democracy, and an open society are not culturally specific values, but are the aspirations, perhaps even the birthright, of everyone born into this world. Our war against the terrorists and the fascist in Iraq, and the increasing irritation with our bankrupt allies in the Middle East need to be couched in precisely those terms of hope — that America is not a bully but the only power in the world that has proven willing and able to end the nightmare of a Noriega or a Milosevic.

Americans have no belly for a moral crusade to change the world; but when murderers come over here to butcher our own, and when a nut stockpiles nightmarish weapons to further his past agenda of death, they are quite willing to defend their culture and values to the bitter end. But they need to be told first that it is not power, nor revenge, nor ego, nor bellicosity that prompts American action, but a unique sense of justice amid a world that talks just, but in self-interested inaction proves itself to be precisely the opposite.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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