Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Voices in the Wilderness

Versus the age-old sirens of appeasement

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Listening to the administration make the case for preemptive action brought reminders of similarly exasperated leaders of the past. To the skepticism of the U.N., the open disdain of the Europeans, the opposition of the so-called moderate Arab countries, and the disparagement of a domesticate opposition, the president warns only of a danger on the horizon — on what will happen only if we do not act. But it is nearly impossible to convince a complacent citizenry that preemption now will save more innocent lives later than present inaction disguised with declarations of moral superiority.

In a sane world, his admonishments that call for sacrifice and danger could hardly be contested: Saddam Hussein has a prior record of killing thousands; he hoards biological and chemical weapons; and he has fought against his neighbors frequently and aggressively. Indeed, he makes Noriega, Milosevic, and the Taliban look like amateur purveyors of death. In a post-9/11 world, there is no margin of error when dealing with a madman who has gassed his own people, warred against the very ecology of the region, and broken armistice and international accords.

Yet the more information we learn of various contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq, the more our pundits assure us that there are, in fact, no connections. Newspapers and documentaries daily and quite freely reveal that al Qaeda terrorists have been in Iraq, even as our congressional leadership demands classified proof.

In some strange way, Saddam Hussein is more dangerous to the civilian population of the United States than was either the more formidable Hitler or Tojo; for the latter to destroy our cities, they needed vast bomber fleets that were either nonexistent or impotent against the United States Army Air Corps. In contrast, Saddam simply requires a dozen sleeper agents with suitcases of anthrax to pollute with microscopic spores multimillion-dollar high-rises, killing and infecting thousands, and shutting down vast hubs of commerce. A dirty bomb or a chemical weapon would have the same catastrophic effect.

But we do not live, and have never lived, in a sane world. Every day a Marine is killed, a French tanker blown up, Christians butchered in Pakistan, tourists incinerated in Bali, terrorist cells broken up from Oregon to New York — and our pundits demand proof that we are at war. Why do the presidents’ critics press their attacks, the more principled playing down the chances of future danger, the more disingenuous engaging in character assassination and cheap psychoanalysis?

In a word, human nature. It is our way always to put aside distant threats of the future to enjoy the tangible, but temporary, lull of the present. Sophistic queries always arise that can never be answered with complete certainty: “Why now?” “He may never use those weapons anyway”; “Won’ t he just use them if we provoke him?” There is also at work the age-old Biblical “pride of life” — the arrogance of those who still breathe and so shrug that the dead are already gone, and that their memory and the anger at their unfair departure should nevertheless not endanger our own tenuous claim on the world above.

So we are bombarded with the voices of understandable appeasement, and they are age-old and familiar: “How do you know Philip II will come this far?” “Don’t you think the Ottomans are vanquished and no longer pose a threat?” ” How do you know what is in the mind of Hitler or Mussolini?” “We are dealing with a new Arafat.”

Think of the truculent Demosthenes, who spent two decades warning complacent city states that Philip II and Alexander were more than modern monarchs who wished to import Hellenic values to improve Macedonian society and unify Greece against Persia. Rather, both were tyrants, who were interested in the fruits of Greek science — catapults, phalanxes, and siege craft — without the bothersome burdens of freedom, consensual government, and open expression that can so hamstring despots.

To no avail. Poor Demosthenes was ridiculed and savaged by Greeks who hardly wanted to go to war against a monster like Philip II when there was little concrete danger in Attica. Thus what was containable in 357 B.C. had grown into something that by 338 was not. The result? Rotting hoplites on the field of Chaeronea, Greek freedom lost, and dour Macedonian mercenaries atop the acropolises of Greece.

Demosthenes, like our president, was dubbed shrill, alarmist, and an opportunist who fabricated an external threat to bolster his own political capital at home. And so Philip II inched unchecked southward, Demosthenes’s smug opponents gloated over meaningless victories of the day, and the Greeks awaited their final rendezvous with the sarissas of the Companions. Watching the hysterics of the hoarse Tom Daschle, the acrimony of the Black Caucus, the warnings of Pat Buchanan, and the recent congressional performance in Baghdad was all so old — the familiar assurances across the millennia of a Philocrates, Phocion, or Demades that a tyrant must be appeased because he poses either no danger or, in fact, too much of a danger.

Don Juan of Spain had no illusions about the Ottoman threat. Either the Mediterranean Europeans would at last unite or they would succumb separately. Through sheer force of will he at last cobbled together a partial alliance of Spain, Venice, and the Papal States, ignored the venom of his detractors, and steered his makeshift fleet head-on against the imperial Ottoman armada. (“Gentlemen, the time for counsel is past and the time for fighting has come.”)

The wages of his brilliant victory at Lepanto in 1571 were Turkish retrenchment, but not ultimate defeat (“a beard trimmed, but not shaved”). In the afterglow of triumph, Italians and Spaniards quarreled and castigated each other: “Why sail to the Golden Horn?” “Was not it enough to defeat the enemy once?” “The coalition will fall apart!” “Who is to say that the Sultan will ever recoup his losses?” And so within a year Ottoman galleys were back on the Mediterranean, and Greece and the Balkans would wait another 250 years for their freedom.

Parallels with Churchill, of course, are constantly drawn in the present crisis. But I think we sometimes forget the real venom directed at him during the late 1930s and the nature of the slurs. Given the still-recent nightmare of the Somme, the economic achievement of Germany, the isolation of Britain, and the rising Socialist cause, Churchill was faced not merely with principled opponents, but with those who libeled that he was unhinged, inebriated, and maniacally bellicose — in short, a pathological war-maker intent in his dotage on demanding another German war to resurrect his own failing career.

Like Demosthenes, Don Juan and Churchill — and President Bush today — struggled to make a complacent audience grasp the nature of a distant and still theoretical threat, one that could only grow through appeasement and would end with confrontation and defeat. Would most educated and sophisticated citizens prefer the utopian refrain, “Let the arms-reduction accords of the League of Nations work,” and “Let the inspectors investigate the rumors of an oversize German battleship and unlawful aircraft construction” — or the simplistic “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, and with all our might. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival!”

So I think most of us in the late 1930s would rather have had tea with an idealistic League of Nations proponent, Gilbert Murray, who outlined universal and international accords of peacemaking than with a bullying Churchill who raged about the Nazi threat.

The truth is that one can sound moral only through the advocacy of restraint,never preemption. Appeasement wins applause for its ethical posturing and non-belligerency; and even when the corpses later pile up it rarely earns the disgust it deserves for getting thousands killed. In contrast, preemption is always equated with blood lust; and even when it saves thousands, critics sigh that in retrospect there must have been a better way.

Like communism and socialism, the rhetoric of appeasement focuses on the pretense of human kindness and brotherhood, never on the calculus of the dead to come. Before preemption in Bosnia and Kosovo the world talked of tens of thousands of innocents murdered; after the bombing abated, it suddenly forgot the holocaust abated and an entire people saved, and instead turned its invective toward an interventionist U.S. that lost no American lives as its errant bombs killed a few hundred foreign civilians.

So also we feel easier with a dapper and deferential Shimon Peres than the uncouth and sloppy Sharon. We would like to believe that Israel was “prudent” not to respond to 39 scuds in 1991. Was it not also “sober” and “sensible” to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon? Surely Mr. Arafat would appreciate an offer of 96 percent of the West Bank? After all, how depressing it is to dismiss outright the Palestinian Authority as corrupt, dishonest, and intent on the destruction of Israel in the wake of its concessions and inaction.

Yet we know that had the Athenians early on listened to Demosthenes, had the alliance paid heed to Don Juan, had England agreed with Churchill, and had Israel accepted the murderous nature of its enemies, the danger could have been confronted earlier and with far fewer losses. Critics of Mr. Bush are more right than they know when they dub him a Manichean — and in this present crisis, thank God for that.

So we also learn that these difficult men are not only irritating to our own often self-proclaimed and smug morality; but if they persist in their Cassandra-like ravings, they prove to be downright obnoxious to our inner need for normalcy and complacency. Mr. Bush, as our modern-day Demosthenes, is not merely up against a wily domestic opposition, the unelected moralists of the U.N., and the chorus of EU utopians. No, he wars with the very pretensions of human nature — and the sad way of history itself.

©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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