A Look Back: Turning Points Since September 11

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

know that things are going pretty well in America’s efforts in the Middle East when Fareed Zakaria, who was a sharp critic over the last two years, now assures us that events are working out in Iraq — just about, he tells us, like he saw all along. Joseph Nye intones that at last Bush came around to his very own idea of “soft power,” while Jackson Diehl gushes that Bush was sort of right all along — to nods of approval even from Daniel Schorr.

Even former Clinton National Security Council member Nancy Soderberg recently lamented to Jon Stewart, “It’s scary for Democrats, I have to say.” And then she added, “Well, there’s still Iran and North Korea, don’t forget. There’s still hope for the rest of us….There’s always hope that this might not work.”

This newfound turnabout follows the successful election and its aftershocks in the region. Before then, it had become a sort of D.C.-insider parlor game to look back at the conflict in the aftermath of September 11 and catalogue our mistakes.

Without much appreciation that error is the stuff of war, that by any historical benchmark the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was nothing short of miraculous, that our ongoing assessments of success and failure changed hourly within the fluid 24-hour newscycle, or that acrimonious hindsight was often used to save face about earlier wrongheaded pronouncements, we continued to tally up the “I told you so’s.”

Lapses were, of course, numerous and easy to spot from our armchairs in America the morning after — laxity in securing borders and arms depots and reforming the Iraqi army, a too-prominent televised American profile from the Green Zone, tardiness in elections, too large and plodding an interim American bureaucracy, slowness in dispersing allotted aid, the April pullback from Fallujah, and so on. Add in Abu Ghraib, plus Syria’s and Iran’s agents and subsidies, and the reconstruction proved more difficult than the three-week victory might otherwise have presaged.

Many erstwhile supporters from the boomer generation — one that is more utopian and therapeutic than practical and tragic — simply bailed on the entire enterprise. They would not return until the successful elections on January 30 and the amazing aftershocks throughout the Middle East convinced them that their continued hypercriticism might leave them on the very wrong side of history.

Lost in all this self-examination and lamentation was any appreciation for the extraordinary things that went right — often against overwhelming odds and in the face of sharp criticism and mistrust. In the past, I have cited the ostracism of Yasser Arafat and the withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia — both controversial at the time — as key events that began to change the calculus of the Middle East in our favor. But there were other developments that are likewise scarcely mentioned today that have made all the difference between sure failure and our present achievement.

We were attacked on September 11. A mere 26 days later on October 7, the United States had already struck back in a fashion that would topple the Taliban in a mere six weeks. Few militaries now or in the past, without any advanced planning and in less than a month, could pull off an invasion of a country of 26 million, and 8,000 miles away.

Pakistan was a de facto belligerent. Due to skilful and often desperate diplomacy the United States was able to tip it just enough to offer us border assistance rather than hostility — an amazing feat of salesmanship given its status as a nuclear and radically Islamic nation on the brink of war with democratic India.

Calls — before the Afghan war and during the so-called “quagmire” of weeks 4-5 — for a “coalition government” to include the “moderate Taliban” were rightly rejected as lunatic, as was the notion of a postbellum “all-Islamic peacekeeping force.”

In the lead-up to Iraq, obtaining Senate approval for the invasion was critical — unlike the situation in Serbia when Bill Clinton neither sought nor obtained congressional sanction. Thus the Senate on its own cited 23 causes of action, well beyond the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and thus established bipartisan agreement on several grounds for removing Saddam.

Going to the U.N. in late 2002 was no mistake either — both for the principled reason that resolutions to be legitimate, need to be enforced, and for the more practical purpose of putting everyone’s cards on the table. That debate led to reexamination of the U.N., revealing in turn both the corruption of the once august body — everything from Oil-for-Food to the inaction on Darfur — and just how far Europe had really diverged from the United States. These were disappointments to be sure, but necessary to clear the air so there were no illusions about Iraq. Does anyone believe that our present appraisals of both Europe and the U.N. are now more naïve or wrong than they were before September 11?

Calls for a massive invasion force along the lines of the first Gulf War were rightly resisted. It made no sense to place half the combat strength of the United States in a narrow, vulnerable and pre-announced corridor in Kuwait. Given the fact the Iraqis were not quite hostiles or friends, but something in between like the Italians of World War II after the invasion of Sicily, a light, rapid force was preferable to a massive conventional armada.

Likewise, it was probably wise to ignore demands for a much larger subsequent occupation army, which would not only have created too high an infidel profile, but led to an intolerable imbalance in the ratio of support to combat troops. What we wished to avoid was the “light at the end of the tunnel” syndrome, reminiscent of the 500,000 Americans in Vietnam and a ten-pound Saigon-style American telephone book during 1967 that made the country no more safe than in 1973 when there were only a few thousand air troops involved. Constant requests for more manpower are often ipso facto proof that either strategy or generalship is wanting.

The absence of the U.N. during the elections was positive. However tragic the circumstances of its exit, the United States was free to use its own carrots and sticks leading up to January 30 to ensure successful voting — without Jimmy Carter, the Europeans, or the blue helmets appeasing the forces who wished to destroy democracy. Most international bureaucrats either would have called for full Sunni participation or, in West Bank fashion, assured the world that a coerced election was in fact fair.

However dire were the threats of the autocracies of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and despite their long-proven record of harboring terrorists of all sorts, the administration always talked in a larger strategic context of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Thus rather than seeing the events that led to September 11 in a narrow frame of bin Laden alone, strategists rightly diagnosed the pathology of something far more insidious and of a much longer pedigree: a deep-seated anti-Americanism that transcended September 11 and was explicable in terms of who were, rather than what we did. We ignored, in other words, Bill Clinton’s post 9/11 apologies for everything from slavery to General Sherman and his most recent praise of the murderous Iranian mullahcracy, as well as cheap shots like “taking our eye off bin Laden.”

We also rejected the communis opinio of the CIA and “experts” such as “Anonymous” or Richard Clarke. Instead, the administration rightly listened to a much deeper wisdom promulgated by the likes of Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, and Amir Taheri. Their correct view was that failed autocrats deflected popular outrage onto Americans in state-censored media, often through a devil’s bargain with Islamicists. The latter were given subsidies or freedom of action to whip up hatred of us — in exchange for keeping their terrorists distant from a royal family, Saddam Hussein, Assad dynasty, Iranian theocracy, or their kindred spirits in the other Arab dictatorships. This larger American embrace of a radical and systematic political solution was the most debated of all the decisions of this war — and the most critical — since democratic reform alone led to the only antidote to the entire Arab cycle of failure.

There have been other crossroads that proved historic as well — the promotion of good transitional figures like Hamid Karzai and Ayad Allawi, the demolition of the Sadr militia, the determination to retake Fallujah, the trust and confidence given Ayatollah Sistani, the resolve not to postpone the January election, the careful cultivation of the British, Australians, Italians, and Eastern Europeans, and the simultaneous efforts to steer the stalwart Sharon in a fashion that would enhance Palestinian reformers. No one gave in to shrill calls to set a timetable for withdrawal, trisect the country, or bring the entrenched Sunni status quo of Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Jordan into the reconstruction.

The Middle East is in flux, as the autocracies in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia reel from the earthquakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like it or not, this is not the time for half-measures, but rather the hour for a uniform American policy that promotes democratic reform and thus predicates our aid, weapons, friendship — almost everything — on the degree to which Middle Eastern societies are free.

How odd that conservatives, usually derided for their multicultural insensitivity and blinkered approach to the world abroad, had far more confidence in the Arab street than did liberals at home and Euro elites who patronized Arabs as nice “others” who were “different” rather than oppressed by murderous thugs in the manner of former Russians, Hungarians, Bosnians, and Afghans.

Every time the United States the last quarter century had acted boldly — its removal of Noriega and aid for the Contras, instantaneous support for a reunified Germany, extension of NATO, preference for Yeltsin instead of Gorbachev, Gulf War I, bombing of Milosevic, support for Sharon’s fence, withdrawal from Gaza and decapitation of the Hamas killer elite, taking out the Taliban and Saddam-good things have ensued. In contrast, on every occasion that we have temporized — abject withdrawal from Lebanon, appeasement of Arafat at Oslo, a decade of inaction in the Balkans, paralysis in Rwanda, sloth in the face of terrorist attacks, not going to Baghdad in 1991 — corpses pile up and the United States became either less secure or less respected or both.

So it is also in this present war, in which our unheralded successes far outweigh our notorious mistakes. A number of books right now in galleys are going to look very, very silly, as they forecast American defeat, a failed Middle East, and the wages of not listening to their far smarter recommendations of using the U.N. more, listening to Europe, or bringing back the Clinton A-Team.

America’s daring, not its support for the familiar — but ultimately unstable and corrupt — status quo, explains why less than three years after September 11, the Middle East is a world away from where it was on the first day of the war. And that is a very good thing indeed.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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