Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

So Far, So Good?

Where are all the purported American blunders?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

It is hard to fathom why the United States has been the subject of such vituperation from Europe and the purported moderate Middle Eastern states. September 11 marked the worst attack on American home soil in the nation’s entire history — a far more calamitous event than precursors for past American wars. In reaction, the United States in just a few weeks routed one of the world’s worst regimes and scattered terrorists who were intent on killing thousands more innocents — all at minimal costs to itself and without gratuitous killing or unseemly boasting. So the present animus cannot be over what we have done, but perhaps arose over what we have said about invading Iraq.

Yet the real crime is not that we propose to topple Saddam Hussein, but that he still rules an enslaved people, has bought billions of dollars of weapons and luxury goods from states that should know better, and is desperately seeking to find a biological or nuclear deterrent before he goes.

The case for military action is clear cut and well known. He has violated all the general terms of the armistice of 1991 — from postbellum murdering of Shiites and Kurds to hiding weapons banned under the accords. Thus we have never been at peace with him — and so nearly a generation of American pilots have risked their lives to ensure that under so-called “no-fly zones” he would not murder still more innocents. Within a space of twelve years he invaded two of his neighbors, killing hundreds of thousands, and sent missiles into two others. His gassing of the Kurds and the attempt to cause ecological disaster in the Kuwait countryside were gratuitously evil efforts to ensure that the ruin of others might last generations after his own demise. Argument rages not over his past involvement in promoting terrorists, but only in establishing a direct connection with the al Qaeda murderers — despite attestation of precisely that from Czech intelligence agents, Iraqi defectors, and reports from the Kurds in northern Iraq. Terrorists on the West Bank confess that his cash bounties for the kin of murderers are welcome incitements to blow up more Israeli women and children.

Contrary to what the European and Arab nations profess, the United States has no innate desire to fight Iraqis — and especially no wish to lose a single one of its precious youth in Saddam’s godforsaken regime 8,000 miles away, fighting a madman that in 2002 does not immediately threaten the security of the United States. Instead we are now weighing the risk of American lives and the expense of billions of dollars in a time of recession for the evil that he has done and the greater evil that he will most certainly do. Rather than caricaturing our president, our purported treaty allies and friends should first ponder the behavior of Iraq over the last few months.

Saddam Hussein has professed a willingness to send prisoners — a decade or two after their capture — back to Iran and Kuwait, countries that he now also swears he will never again attack. Oil concessions are being negotiated with Jordan and Syria. The return of U.N. inspectors is suddenly in the news. Does anyone believe that such assurances of changed behavior came as a result of European engagement and trade with Iraq, U.N. sanctions, or Arab disdain?

No, these are tactical maneuvers to ward off American invasion, little more than stalling tactics intended to give hope to EU diplomats and many in America that the former “problems” in Iraq are now solved and thus need no military solutions. To the small degree that he follows up on his peaceful overtures, American force and the threat to use it are alone responsible — in the same manner that after the president’s speech both Iran and North Korea are now talking of cooperation, and after Jenin the Palestinian Authority is suddenly admitting the need for reform, new elections, and a new constitution. Promising warmer diplomatic relations to Iran, nuclear reactors to Korea, or a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and offer of 97 percent of the West Bank strengthened, not challenged, the stranglehold of tyrants.

Which all brings us to the current American strategy as we face off against Iraq. The Left believes saber rattling has lost us our moral capital from 9/11; the Right counters that our hesitancy has cost us momentum as we go wobbly listening to the hand wringing from every quarter.

In fact, so far the United States has accomplished a great deal since the September attacks, without yet committing a major blunder. Silly ideas of last autumn — a proposed Islamic peace force in Afghanistan, a coalition government of reformed Taliban, a bombing hiatus during Ramadan, or direct presidential talks with Arafat were all quickly and wisely ignored. In our first year, there has been no Wake Island or surprise at the Yalu River that marked our initial months of fighting in past wars. The terrorists abroad are on the run, and at home either jailed or in hiding. Afghanistan is liberated; we talk over sporadic incidents of random killings and corruption there, not government-sponsored beheading or thousands planning the murder of Americans with impunity in the countryside. The present deliberation about war with Iraq is neither a sign of brinkmanship nor timidity, but a necessary pause to air domestic doubts and vent foreign worries.

Militarily, the advance knowledge of impending doom has its advantages. No Nazis in France doubted that the Allies were going to land on the Atlantic coast in 1944; yet for all their preparations, they were still surprised — after Hitler had been distraught over the idea of a second front for over a year prior. Few occupiers of the Falklands thought that British troops in transit were suddenly going to turn around and sail back to England. The weeks of delay as they closed on the islands only brought the Argentines more anxiety than relief, and added nothing much to the readiness of their defenses. All generals like strategic surprise, but at times in a democracy it is simply impossible — and occasionally the acknowledgement of the inevitable blow to fall can instill a slow enervating dread as well as recrimination and squabbling among the targeted.

So far in this war, the United States has acted both rationally and forcefully, and consequently the cards are now all in its hand. Saddam is on a higher state of alert than we are; his pathetic overtures are seen as either disingenuous or signs of desperation and weakness, precipitated only by threats of American action — raising the questions why he has not done all this and more years earlier, and why the specter of force works when the surety of talk fails.

What is ahead? At some point, of course, promises of “regime change” will appear empty without action. When that day of reckoning will arrive is unknown and will depend on the degree of cynical concessions made by Saddam Hussein, the building of an American consensus, and the intervening events on the world scene. But one thing is clear; the greatest danger facing the United States is neither the charge of timidity by holding off for a time from Iraq nor bellicosity by right now attacking Saddam. The peril is instead invading without sufficient force or will to complete the task — which is not about the liberation of land or the fulfillment of U.N. resolutions, but the very head of Saddam Hussein. Critics will hate us whether we use a battalion or 20 divisions; and complain more that Saddam Hussein has survived our efforts than lament that he and his clique were liquidated. Moreover, politically, stalemate would prove an unmitigated disaster and nullify all the improvement in the world scene since 9/11 — emboldening more tyrants in Syria, Libya, and Iran, encouraging the terrorists, stifling talk of reform in the Arab dictatorships, and ending American credibility in the region.

A small surgical invasion, aimed at the family of Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction, and his tribal agencies — backed by air power, agents of insurrection, and indigenous forces may or may not work on its own. Perhaps such untraditional approaches should be given a chance to achieve our goals without incurring great loss of Iraqi life or endangering our own conventional troops. But still in addition, we must have an enormous reservoir of soldiers — perhaps as many as 250,000 in immediate readiness that in increments of two or three divisions can be steadily inserted the moment resistance stiffens. The Afghanistan model and the tactics of the prior Gulf War method are not antithetical but complementary. If special forces and precision bombs prove unable to obtain victory outright, they must be understood — if for psychological reasons only — not as setbacks but as planned precursors to the onslaught of armored divisions and infantry sent to handle the Republican Guard and secure Baghdad.

The administration knows all this. Its critics have alleged all sorts of political and military blunders; but so far in the last eleven months it is hard for disinterested observers to find a single serious miscalculation — a remarkable diplomatic and military performance that we have not seen in a wartime administration since the conclusion of World War II.

©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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