Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Short-Term Pain & Long-Term Gain

Why the war on terror is not the Cold War.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

For much of the 1990s the autocrats of the former Yugoslavia seized control of the fragmenting country and initiated an ethnically inspired bloodbath. Mr. Milosevic and his associates were put down only by the intervention of a democratic United States and a very few of its namby-pamby European satellites.

The dictatorial Saddam Hussein has attacked four of his neighbors in the last decade — invading Kuwait and Iran, in addition to raining missiles down upon Israel and Saudi Arabia. He will cease his bellicosity only when the consensual government of the United States puts an end to his terror.

A theocratic Afghanistan provided requisite sanctuary and succor for al Qaeda terrorists to murder 3,000 Americans. Those killers and their hosts had to be routed by the free forces of the United States, with some auxiliary support from the United Kingdom and other republics of Europe.

A democratic Israel is now in a dirty war against various terrorist elements that emanate from a very undemocratic Palestine. For all the European rhetoric and our own anti-Israeli Left, few privately trust Mr. Arafat’s gangsters more than they do the Israeli Knesset.

Mr. Musharraf of Pakistan, a military dictator, either will not or cannot restrain Islamic fanatics from instigating a potentially nuclear conflagration against democratic India’s soldiers and civilians.

And so on.

There is a pattern here — one illustrating that democratic and free states are less incendiary than their polar opposites, which in turn are far more likely to attack their neighbors and indeed threaten the general peace. It is not that the gene pool in consensual societies is inherently superior to the DNA of unfree peoples, only that the system of listening to thousands of free voices — in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government — has a greater likelihood to check unwise action, audit the abuse of power, and reflect most people’s desire for tranquility rather than killing.

Of course, democracies themselves can be rash. The Greek fifth century B.C. is mostly the story of Athenian bellicosity throughout the Aegean. Most Greeks saw no reason why elected governments could not at times attack other democracies. Athens, for example, sent the 40,000 sailors and marines of a doomed armada on an 800-mile voyage to enslave Syracuse, the largest democracy in the Greek world. Indeed, most Greeks in the fifth century died fighting for or against Athens. And it was the demos, not oligarchs, after all, that executed Socrates — and at Thebes tried to do the same to Epaminondas, the great liberator of the helots. Plato felt that “democratic man” was little more than a slave to his appetites — a scary portrait appearing earlier in several of Aristophanes’s comic plays. But for all the criticism of free societies, ancient and modern, it remains true that the cacophony and rowdiness of unbridled exchanges in the assembly more often — not always, just more often — tend to table bad ideas and allow citizens to think before acting.

World War II and the ensuing Cold War taught us that we did not always have the option of embracing such open cultures as our allies. We enlisted the murderous Stalinist regime to aid in our efforts to destroy the murderous Nazi government in Germany — only in turn later to stomach right-wing autocracies in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Asia, and South America, which swore to oppose the spread of a worldwide communism that had led to the murder of perhaps 80 million innocents alone in Russia, China, southeast Asia, and Africa in the latter20th century.

Such a pragmatic policy was apparently based on the principle of fighting the greater evil of the moment: In 1939 Hitler was more dangerous than Stalin, who was by 1946 more frightening than Franco — in the same manner as Soviet tanks, not Islamic fundamentalists, were more likely to threaten the world’s peace circa 1980.

The idea of such Realpolitik is defensible when millions are being gassed or the world threatened with nuclear annihilation: Free societies at the brink cannot be choosy about their ad hoc partners. Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy of basing American strategic decisions on the criterion of human rights was admirable, but naïve in thinking that local thugs and dictators who kept out communism were in any way the moral equivalent of genocidal Maoists or Stalinists who had littered the globe with corpses.

Yet two significant factors have arisen to alter the calculus of realism, questioning the wisdom of backing a military dictator like Musharraf, who agrees to police the border with Afghanistan, or assuming that the unelected Saudis are “moderates” because they are not as homicidal as the criminals now in power in Iraq or Libya.

The first consideration is the quite sudden emergence after 1990 of America as a unipower, whose margin of military superiority vis — vis friends and enemies has not been seen on the world stage since the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. Mare nostrum is now not merely the Mediterranean, but the world sea; and Pax Americana is no longer a boast, but a reality backed by legions far superior in comparative terms to the 250,000 who once guarded the Roman frontier.

Whereas all states need both allies and neutrals in wars for their survival, it is hard to imagine that any nation can really provide meaningful military assistance to us, other than the use of airspace, basing, or the port facilities. And those geographical requisites can often be circumvented with imagination and effort. In other words, America can insist, in a way not possible in the last 60 years, that our friendship abroad is predicated on basic principles of consensual government — not necessarily out of blinkered idealism, but simply because democracies later on will be less likely to fight us or our friends. We can beat Iraq — without the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Egyptians, or the Jordanians. We do not need them, and should not welcome them. This time we should go to Baghdad, and go alone — and let them all wonder what we will do to the next autocracy whose subjects kill Americans.

Second, globalization, instant transworld communications, and easy international travel have created not just a universal consumer market, but a global proto-electorate as well — one that right now wants for its own what it sees on videos, through the Internet, and at the movies. At first, of course, such desire is material: more Cokes, Avon, T-shirts, sneakers, and Play-Station IIs to detract the mind from the miasma of malaria, open sewage, and secret police. Yet when the poor in Cairo and Islamabad cannot satisfy their increasing consumer appetites nor see any hope for freedom or security in their immediate landscape, they seek scapegoats — at first their own corrupt governments.

But soon all such cagey strongmen turn their media loose to deflect growing domestic displeasure toward America, the Great Satan and fountainhead of such unattainable material affluence and license. Millions may be illiterate, but they are also informed in a crude way through mass visual media that does not require knowledge even of an alphabet. And yet this volatile rabble also increasingly represents a parallel constituency that can be reached by us without the conduit of its own failed government — the real enemy that so often tells us in English that they like us as much as they swear to their own people in the native tongue that they hate us.

There is a reason why the postbellum Afghans so far have belied predictions of instant chaos, misery, and genocide with the collapse of the Taliban, and instead are fascinated with televisions, free schools, and cell phones. They realize that we did not like the Taliban — which they hated — and so by extension now do not despise us. In the same manner, Iranians, Libyans, and Iraqis are probably more sympathetic to Americans than are Saudis, Egyptians, and Kuwaitis — whose despotic governments we either subsidize or protect. Unlike the case with the closed societies beyond the Iron Curtain in the 1940s and 1950s, Americans in this new electronic age can appeal directly to unfree peoples, both on principles of democracy and through our own often crass popular culture that by its very vibrancy is antithetical to fundamentalism and autocracy alike.

The world is changing as we speak. Recent history teaches us that those societies that elect their own representatives are less likely to murder their own people, threaten nuclear exchanges — or butcher Americans. In contrast, supporting unfree nations brings us only short-term aid — a closed border here or a base there — but marginal advantages not worth the commensurate cost of alienating millions who otherwise look to us for material and increasingly psychosocial succor.

If there was democracy in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, we would be now squabbling with them at inane and irritating U.N. conferences over trade agreements, global warming, “racism” — and thus less likely sending them bribe money or troops. And the problem is not just with our enemies like Saddam Hussein or the mullahs in Iran, but our purported friends as well — who need extremists in their neighborhood to convince us that unelected sheiks, censored media, and secret police are “moderate” because they do not shoot advisers in meetings, stockpile anthrax, or blow up Americans.

To rein in the fundamentalists, it was in our short-term interest to support Musharraf, but perhaps not so in the long-term welfare of America when thousands of our best troops may well be in the lethal vicinity of a theater-wide nuclear exchange. We liked Saudi stability when it came to anti-communism, uninterrupted oil shipments, and resistance to maniacs in Iraq and Iran — but ultimately that is a dead-end policy when 22 million are ruled by 7,000 cousins who frolic in, but too often slander, the United States. “There are worse extremists than Arafat,” we are lectured — so goes the realist argument to hand over millions to a kleptocracy we know rather than to a restless citizenry we fear.

America should instead adopt a consistent policy of favoring elected governments — all of them — and accept the sometimes immediate drawbacks on the assurance that in the long run free peoples, even without prior egalitarian traditions, will be less likely to murder Americans and others. In the case of 500 million Islamic citizens living under illegitimate regimes of various sorts, such a change in policy will be chaotic, audacious, and perhaps dangerous. But the status quo of propping up dictators who claim to be as eager in stopping terrorists as they were in corralling communists is not working because the dangers, the age we live in, and the extent of American power are not comparable to those of just 20 years ago.

In short, a new democratic disorder is far preferable to the old autocratic stability.

©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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