In war, the last campaigns are the bloodiest.
by Victor Davis Hanson
Wall Street Journal
A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
In singular moments in our history, the security of the United States hinged on a single presidential election. Imagine George McClellan recognizing an undefeated Confederacy in March 1865. Consider an eight-year Jimmy Carter tenure. Or contemplate Walter Mondale taking over from a defeated President Reagan to implement unilaterally a nuclear freeze, Mike Dukakis asking Saddam to leave Kuwait, or Al Gore mobilizing America to invade Afghanistan. We are now faced with the same critical choice. Today’s vote determines how the United States finishes the present war against terrorists, and, indeed, whether we defeat Islamic fascism and those Middle East autocracies that fuel it.
John Kerry sees our struggle as a law enforcement problem, akin to gambling and prostitution. Thus the terrorist attacks of the 1990s were not deadly precursors to 9-11, but belong to a now nostalgic era of “nuisance.” In contrast, George Bush envisioned September 11 as real war—a global struggle against Dark-Age extremism, striving for a nuclear caliphate that could blackmail the industrialized world and destroy Western liberal values. So Mr. Bush took terrorist killers at their word, convinced that such “evil-doers,” like a Hitler or Stalin, had no legitimate complaint against America. Rather, they murder out of a deep frustration that Western liberality is on the march, signaling an end to Islamic fascism and those repressive regimes that hand-in-glove with them have deflected their own failures onto the United States.
John Kerry promises “help is on the way” to remove President Bush, who has purportedly lied when he is exposed as incompetent. Such strident condemnation ignores the stunning victory over the Taliban, the first election in Afghanistan in 5,000 years, the removal of Saddam Hussein with scheduled elections for next January, positive changes in Libya, Pakistan, and the Gulf States, and the absence of another 9-11-like attack here at home.
Muqutada al-Sadr and bin Laden now whine about American retaliation and send out peace feelers. But their apprehension arises not because of Kerry’s rhetoric or his promises of UN collectivism. Rather, the specter of 4 more years of a resolute George W. Bush equates to their continued defeat. Their trepidation was shared by the 1980 hostage takers in Teheran, who relented in terror of an inaugurated Ronald Reagan warning them of the impending end to Carteresque appeasement.
Most of Mr. Kerry’s allegations about this war ring false because he shifts in tune to mercurial polls. Kerry’s yes/no/maybe public statements and votes reflect the perceived daily pulse of the battlefield—and his lack of either a strategic understanding of the war or faith in the skill and resoluteness of the United States military. He insists that there were no al Qaeda ties to Baathists, but we see them in postbellum Iraq, knew of them during the first World Trade Center bombing, and once accepted President Clinton’s claim for them during his 1998 retaliation against the Sudan. WMD are likewise derided as a chimera. But President Clinton, Senator Kerry, and Senator Edwards are all on record frantically warning about Saddam’s bio-chem arsenal—with others citing intelligence confirmation from Vladimir Putin to Hosni Mubarak. During the three-week war, American troops in the field did not don bothersome chemical suits because of President Bush’s naiveté or duplicity.
In Mr. Kerry’s world, brave folk such as Prime Minister Allawi, the Poles, and Australians are belittled as hollow and bought allies, while Germany and France that profited lucratively with Saddam will be invited to join “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” now dubbed analogous to the Bay of Pigs. The explanation for Saddam’s removal, in Teresa Heinz Kerry’s words, is ‘blood for oil,’ a mantra echoed by Fahrenheit 9-11, MoveOn.org, and bin Laden’s latest infomercial. But after the invasion, petroleum prices soared. Iraq’s national treasure is for the first time transparent and autonomous. France, Russia, and the UN can no longer steal it. Bush, once libeled as the villainous Texas oil schemer, is now reinvented on the campaign trail as Kerry’s clueless naïf, bullied by a sinister OPEC.
True, much of the Kerry negativism derives from opportunism. Yet there is also a logic that explains the flip-flopping, rooted in deep-seated doubts about both the utility and morality of using American military power. Thus Kerry voted against our present weapons systems. That may explain why in 1988 he looked back at the Reagan strategic build-up as one of “moral darkness.”
Mr. Kerry, as a soldier and a Senator, conducted freelance negotiations with both the communist North Vietnamese and Sandinistas. His opposition to the 1991 Gulf War might have ensured a Saddam Hussein sitting on 30% of the world’s oil, replete with nukes, and lording over what was left of Kuwait, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia. His recent embrace of a “global test” as the proper requisite of American military action was not novel, but reflected his 1994 remarks that American efforts to stop Serbian fascism should be predicated only on United Nations approval—although Bill Clinton later bombed successfully without either the sanction of the US Senate or the Security Council. And when President Clinton reaffirmed America as the “indispensable nation”, Kerry predictably lamented the “arrogant, obnoxious tone.”
Kerry insists that President Bush “squandered” global good will and that America is now roundly disliked. But who is angry with President Bush—and why? North Korea to be sure—their Danegeld of oil and food is gone, their nuclear antics under multiparty scrutiny. Iran is furious as well—but even more terrified that the United States is no longer in an investigative, but rather a warrior, mood. The Arafat kleptocracy and most of the Middle East pine for the good old days of “sensitive” American cops vainly subpoenaing terrorists snug in compounds and palaces.
If Belgium, France, and Germany are purportedly seething at Mr. Bush’s troop repositioning, ‘dead or alive’ homilies, and the smashing of Saddam’s cashbox, then billions in India, China, and Russia see all that as a larger effort to stop a globally despised Islamic fascism. Most Americans applaud the support of Australia and the United Kingdom rather than worry over the censure of New Zealand and Canada. Yes, George Bush is a divisive wartime figure—so were Lincoln, Churchill and Roosevelt. But war itself is divisive precisely because to end it one side must lose.
This has been a nasty campaign. Elites in the media, the arts, universities, and Hollywood grasp that a Bush win confirms that the House, Senate, Presidency, and Supreme Court, along with the majority of state legislatures and governorships, are now lost. Sensing this forfeiture of hard political power, everyone, from the New York Times, NPR, CBS, and UN bureaucrats to George Soros and Bruce Springsteen, has been unleashed. Their capital, creative talent, and aristocratic erudition are put at the disposal of enlightening ‘unsophisticated’, but easily swayed, American voters in Toledo and Tallahassee, who, they fear, are in danger of being mesmerized by the unruly Internet, populist talk radio, and lowbrow cable news into reelecting George Bush.
Yet throughout all the hysteria and caricatures of the ABC memos, Anonymous, Jimmy Carter, Richard Clark, Al Gore, Teresa Kerry, Kitty Kelly, Michael Moore, and Rathergate, the President has conducted a difficult war against stealthy global enemies. He has weathered Abu Ghraib, car bombs, suicide attacks, beheadings, the fickleness of Turkey, the defection of Spain, UN hostility, tactical lapses in Iraq, and the machinations of France and Germany—and he has not wavered once.
In war, it is hard to know when victory is near, since the last campaigns are often the bloodiest. We are seeing the foundations of a new Middle East, terrorists scattered, jailed, and dead, and, yes, victory itself on the horizon—but only if on this memorable day we persevere and allow George W. Bush to finish the job.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson