by Victor Davis Hanson
The dilemma of the United States in this war is not a strategic one. After September 11 Americans jettisoned the trendy, but flawed, exegesis that Islamic fascism was an irritant only—one that could be addressed by Grand Juries, cruise missiles, “boxing” in rogue nations like Iraq and Syria, and turning to Middle Eastern “experts” to learn how colonialism, racism, and imperialism understandably had energized millions in the Middle East against the United States.
So give us credit. Most Americans instead now accept that we know what the new fascism is and how to combat it. Middle-East tyrannies have failed their people at precisely the time a grating and alluring globalization—from internet and cell phones to videos and easy immigration—reminds their multitudes just how far behind and isolated from the world they have become.In response, Arab state-sanctioned media deflect leaders’ moral and intellectual corruption by blaming the United States, in addition evoking faux issues of “honor” and “pride”—so critical to the Arab (male) Street’s sense of worth—in all matters dealing with Israel. So for all the verbiage of a “war against terror”, we realize that we are in a struggle not against a mere method, but fighting Islamicists and their fascist nation-state supporters
In response, American strategy since 9-11 has been about as good as we could expect and three-pronged in its efforts. Hunt down the Al Qaedists themselves and hold governments responsible who now or in the past have harbored terrorists—sometimes removing them (the Taliban and Saddam), on other occasions coercing them (Libya), as well as appealing to their better sense of judgment (Jordan, Morocco, or Algeria).
Second, for those terror-abetting regimes we cannot fight openly—whether due to Saudi Arabia’s stranglehold on a quarter of the world’s oil or Pakistan’s possession of nuclear bombs, or Syria’s proximity to the temporary mess next door—apply a mixture of money, jawboning, and veiled threats to make them cease financial support and at least stay neutral.
Third, our strategy is not entirely coercive, as the United States is pouring billions of dollars into Iraq, drawing the Gulf states under the modernizing umbrella of Western globalization, giving billions in outright cash aid to Jordan and Egypt, and spending millions more to explain to the Arab masses why we are not their enemies.
What next and when will we win? Ultimately, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon must be addressed—either fought, coerced, flipped, or persuaded—into ending all support for Islamic fascists, both directly by ceasing money, sanctuary, and bases, and more indirectly in accepting democratic reforms that will drain their own swamps of human misery. We will win only when an al-Zarqaqi or a bin Laden has nowhere to sleep, eat, or walk—his presence as odious to his neighbors and dangerous to his hosts as a Nazi Party official was in 1946 in European cities.
Unfortunately strategic success only follows from battlefield victories and the above goals hinge on thousands of American youth now fighting very nasty people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet here we have one great advantage. The United States military is the most formidable force in the history of civilization, as it proved in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in places like Najef. Anytime and anywhere it is allowed to fight, it wins. But so far its lethality has not always translated into strategic success—either securing absolute peace in Afghanistan or Iraq, or sending a powerful warning to Syria or Iran that their fates are one with the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Why so?
War has butted up against the postmodern world—in which enemy armies are expected to collapse rather than to be destroyed. Violence used for humanitarian purposes—ceasing mass murder or state fascism—is deemed by its very nature as amoral. Television editorializes that those who fight in uniforms are killers and those in robes and scarves freedom-fighters—even when the former are seeking democracy and the latter tyranny.
In reaction, all of our recent mistakes are mostly a result of a misplaced sense of restraint and worry over our utopian critics —not arresting or shooting the initial looters, not employing and reforming the existing Iraqi army, pausing outside Fallujah, letting al Sadr reach Mahdist stature, and allowing Iran and Syria easy infiltration into Iraq.
Each time we sought not to mete out terrible justice to a few hundred, thousands more lost confidence in us. Our military has crafted the tactics to win—whether in the streets, desert, or air. But we must unleash them to destroy the enemy first, and, SECOND, therein allow others to follow to win hearts and mind.
The standard wisdom repeated ad nauseam in the New York Timesis that we were clumsy in our statecraft and gratuitously offended the Europeans and Arab “moderates.” In fact, the former were never going to participate in Iraq and do little in Afghanistan, and the latter mostly wished us to lose in both places The problem was not that we were unable to build a gigantic coalition—dozens of nations after all are with us in Iraq—but that we failed to explain the moral issues at stake to billions watching.
The world has not heard much from an unapologetic American statesman that we are in a war for our very civilization from Bali to Kabul and Manhattan to Fallujah. We must tell the Europeans that well before Iraq, fascists—those who hate religious tolerance, equality of women, liberty, and consensual government—beheaded Americans, butchered civilians at work, called for murder in fatwas, and promised terror and death in Europe. Iraq was not the genesis, but the crystallization, of their hatred.
We might have pointed out that the United Nations has done little to address world terrorism, less to stop mass murder in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Iraq, and nothing to remove the heinous Taliban or Saddam. Somehow an American statesman is more likely to be seen apologizing for sexual humiliation in an Iraqi prison than explaining to the world how the Oil for Food scandal robbed thousands of poor and hungry Iraqis of daily sustenance. Halliburton, under public contract and constant scrutiny to rebuild Iraq, is more likely to be the butt of world opprobrium than a Swiss multinational, which with Kojo Anan’s help, robbed the poor to pay Saddam.
Worse, here at home we have not explained the terrible ironies of this war to the American public. More civilians in our cities were incinerated than all the soldiers who have died fighting abroad—and al Qaeda promises a worse toll to come through the unleashing of weapons even more horrible than crashing airliners.
Americans do not grasp that should a constitutional government emerge in Iraq, al Qaeda is faced with an enemy far more formidable than the United States. The old false choice between strong-armed dictators and Islamic fascists will start to crumble with a third option that says to the Arab Street: “Look to your own elected government—that is, yourselves—not the United States or Israel, when the sewers back up and the power fails.” So, yes, what happens in the next two or three months is the most critical event since September 11.
We need to accept that our enemy is not a fleet of bombers or subs, but something far more insidious and formidable. He is a stealthy foe that so far has killed more Americans in their home streets than all of Hitler’s Storm Troopers, Tojo’s carriers, or Stalin’s Migs—and more eerily still, with far less furious a response from Americans than was true during the last sixty years.
Have there been mistakes? Of course. Admit them and confess they were errors of omission, not commission—of misplaced leniency, not excessive brutality. The Iraqi army should have been weeded from within rather than destroyed outright. The first wave of looters whose crimes led to a rampage that stole six months of Iraq’s future and wrecked the country should have been shot. Abu Ghraib should have been exploded on liberation in front of world television as testament to its Baathist horror, an iconic act of our resolve to end the mass murder.
But all that is in the past. Our strategy is still inspired and our military is superb. But we need to let them win and then tell the world why. And if we don’t, we may very well lose.
© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson