Better or Worse?

Should we believe the gloom of the Democrats?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Thematic in the Democratic primary campaign is that the United States is worse off now than it was before the invasion of Iraq. The harangues from some of the candidates have been quite unbelievable: Saddam Hussein’s capture did little to improve our security; we cannot prejudge bin Laden’s guilt; we are less safe than ever before and hated to boot; and so on.

The proposed alternatives from those who either once voted for or supported the war are equally surreal. We should have just indicted and arrested Saddam Hussein (via the FBI or Interpol?); or withdrawn from Iraq at the end of the year (Vietnam-style with helicopters on the embassy roof?); or allowed the U.N. to take over (along the lines of its 1993-99 triumph in the Balkans?); or involved the Europeans (who announce they may send troops in the future after the U.S. has won both the war and peace — and oil concessions need to be re-allotted).

Elder statesmen like Ted Kennedy and Al Gore are perhaps even more strident in their calumny. They swear the Iraq campaign was “cooked up” in Texas and that it ranks among the “worst” foreign policy disasters in American history. Indeed, poor former Vice President Gore has transmogrified in just a few months from a senior statesman who once took apart Ross Perot on live television into a caricature of a hand-waving, out-of-control Perot himself. Senator Kennedy’s fuming is simply more Chomskyite than Democratic.

And what has happened to General Clark? His once judicious observations of two years ago have become unhinged, and now make Curtis Le May seem circumspect by comparison. Democrats wanted a sober George Marshall on the campaign trail; instead Americans are beginning to witness an embittered, conspiracy-obsessed Maj. General Smedley Butler come alive — endorsed by the slander-spouting Michael Moore instead of respected peers like General Schwarzkopf.

Nothing comes cheaply in Iraq, and 500 Americans tragically are dead, a fatality rate as great as those murdered in either Chicago or Los Angeles last year. Perhaps over $100 billion has been spent already. Bombing and sniping continue. Yet is it really true, as the Democrats allege, that the United States is in a worse situation than before the March invasion? Indeed, if we look at the situation empirically, the very opposite seems the case. Consider first the map itself.

We were warned that “preemption” in Iraq would give the green light to Pakistan and India to go to war. In fact, India’s economy and culture are more America-oriented than ever before, and Pakistan seems more afraid that such new ties with the United States will leave it odd man out. Both sides are seeking to cool down the crisis. Whatever the wisdom of supporting President Musharraf, at least his country is no longer an unexamined sanctuary for the world’s worst terrorists, and a growing democratic opposition there is rivaling the Islamicists. In fact, Pakistan is in internal foment, as fundamentalists for the first time in a decade are under scrutiny and are unsure whether their full theocratic agenda will ever be enacted. Even the madrassas sense that Mr. Karzai and the Iraqi Democratic Council are openly above ground, while Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have not been for the last six months.

Perhaps Howard Dean was referring to nearby Saudi Arabia as an example of how things have gotten worse since the conquest of Saddam Hussein. While there have been bombings there, what is new is that many members of the royal family realize that the world is changing, and that they may well be dragged by al Qaedists into an 11th-century abyss.

Surely the scheduled withdrawal of American troops from the kingdom, the curtailment in Saudi funds sent abroad to fuel the madrassas, the reexamination of Saudi-sponsored charities, and the beginning of some democratic awakening among vocal elites, all suggest that the tough approach of the United States toward the sponsors of terror and the victory in Iraq made things far better. In contrast, what was truly pathological was our relationship over the last decade — when we winked as Saudis openly subsidized terrorists, promulgated Wahhabism the world over, and demanded that our female soldiers protecting the sheiks not come into town.

I’ll pass on Libya — unless Messrs. Dean, Clark, and Kerry wish to make the argument that Colonel Khaddafi’s road-to-Damascus epiphany was the dividend of years of State Department diplomacy. We all wish that Democratic canard were so, but in fact his apoplexy followed the sight of a kindred Arab dictator scrambling out at gunpoint from an abandoned septic tank.

Iran is once more witnessing democratic demonstrations and calls for radical reform. Its spooky theocracy is no longer talking of the joys of an Islamic bomb that might take out Israel at the economical price of a few million fried Muslims. Indeed, as Iraqi reactionaries demand gender apartheid in the new democracy in Baghdad, Iranian dissidents next door cry “Been there, done that.” Mullocracy in Iran, remember, is a sick, sick system. It dreams of billion-dollar nukes while it cannot even implement a primitive building code — one basic enough to ensure that 30,000 don’t perish in a blink of an eye from the type of earthquake that shakes a few high-rises and breaks dishes inside the Great Satan’s realm.

Syria suddenly claims that it wants to discuss peace with Israel. But more importantly after the events of the last year, Assad’s big talk about Lebanon, the Zionists, and the United States has mysteriously become muted. Rather than threatening the U.S., promising a new war with Israel, or bragging to Arab newspapers that his country is a hotel for extremists, he now whines about American unwillingness to compromise, Israeli intransigence over the Golan, and paranoia over what is going on in the Gulf.

And what about the locus of our purported catastrophe in Iraq? We cannot even compare the sniping, however wretched, to missiles raining across borders, no-fly zones, broken armistices, ignored U.N. mandates, U.N.-introduced food embargoes, massive foreign invasions, bounties awarded for suicide killings, genocide, destruction of the environment, and looting of oil revenues to buy imported weaponry. For all the chaos we supposedly created, we no longer have mass graves, but instead Shiites demonstrating for democratic elections and Kurds hammering out plans for a federal state. Instead of Baathists slaughtering students, the current controversy is whether to depose Saddamites from university faculties. And the full effect of the war remains to be seen, when the neighbors of Iraq will watch in horror at free elections and debates. It isn’t easy there, but when or where has the creation of civilization in place of barbarism ever been effortless?

What is strange about our new European relationship is not that it has deteriorated, but that its Orwellian premises had not been questioned long ago. The Iraq war woke us from a deep, dangerous coma, and raised questions unasked for decades: Why defend a continent larger and more populous than our own? Why consider the German and French governments staunch allies, when, by any measure of their rhetorical and diplomatic anti-Americanism, they appear no different from — and indeed, far worse than — what emanates from a China, Brazil, or Middle Eastern “moderate” nations?

Europe, not America, has proved most interested in Iraqi oil over the last decade. Europe, not America, is apt to tolerate massacres in the Balkans or Iraq. Indeed, the victory in Iraq emphasized that our greatest sin is in being cumbersome and often acting belatedly to stop autocratic killing — but this is a far different moral quandary than never acting at all. When you look at Iranian fascists being wined and dined in Paris, count up all the corpses from the August heat wave, and contemplate the explosive issue of school scarves, France, not the United States, is the real sick puppy.

Much is made about the security alerts here at home and the new bogeyman Attorney General Ashcroft. But apart from the (necessary) inconvenience at airports, it is hard for Americans to agree with the Democrats that we are living in a police state — or that after September 11 we have been at the mercy of al Qaeda while President Bush was purportedly asleep at the wheel.

There is even a positive change in the perennial Israeli conflict. Until the United States began seriously to hunt down terrorists and take out fascists like Saddam and Mullah Omar, the world pretty much had become accustomed to the Islamic rules of the intifada. Palestinians blew up Jews, then seethed and shrieked when Israelis targeted their leaders. Yasser Arafat orchestrated the murderous farce from his opulent, European-subsidized lair in Ramallah, while the international media searched desperately for a rock-throwing 12-year-old to be shot at by an Israeli tank for the worldwide evening news.

Of course, that burlesque continues, but Arafat is increasingly irrelevant if not pathetic. The international community is looking closely at the billions it gave groups like the PLO and Hamas. And in the face of cries of “apartheid” and “don’t fence us out of the Zionist entity,” the barrier, whose initial course has all but ended suicide murdering in its wake, inches on. Whether we like it or not, Israel will probably wall itself off from the West Bank; the final borders and the wall itself will be adjudicated when and if the Palestinians decide to leave the barbarian world and join the family of democratic nations.

With all this in mind, it is hard to understand the Democrats’ logic of disaster. True, we are in an election year — the stuff of predictable hysteria. Politics, of course, is an arena in which there are no laws — a gladiatorial free-for-all that (unless you are Howard Dean) you don’t enter demanding the retiarius leave behind his net or the Thracian dull his scimitar. But still, both history and reason offer no support for the calculus of the candidates’ current invective. The party of Harry Truman has somehow boxed itself into the corner of seeing bad news from the Iraqi theater as good news for them.

In contrast, encouraging developments — from the capture of Saddam Hussein to a return of services and gradual stability in Iraq — are embraced as antithetical to the Democrats’ own election hopes. But do they grasp that very few presidential hopefuls — remember McClellan, McCarthy, and McGovern — have ever been elected during a period of turmoil through calls for a cessation of effort, which the American electorate always interprets as defeatist rather than rational? During wars the more successful candidates usually campaign from the right on matters of tactics, arguing perhaps — as an Eisenhower in 1952 or a 1968 Nixon — that the war is mismanaged and conducted haphazardly, rather than intrinsically immoral and futile.

To be fair, the Democrats do not have a large range of options. After September 11, the United States conducted two brilliant military campaigns when conventional antebellum wisdom predicted doom and quagmire. Al Qaeda has not duplicated 9/11. Saddam Hussein was apprehended far more quickly than the Balkan outlaws still on the lam. Democracy in the Middle East is becoming at least as revolutionary a movement as Islamic fundamentalism.

Here in the U.S., the economy is growing briskly. Interest rates are low, and the stock market is on the rise. In fact, these would-be presidents have one and only one real issue that might resonate with the American people: The combination of domestic-security expenditures, increased defense outlays, waging wars, cutting taxes, proposed new space exploration, and promised sweeping new entitlements is simply too much. Even with massive new revenues from economic growth, America probably will require either a budget freeze or tax hikes after the election. And while we run up deficits (both budget and trade), watch a falling dollar, and ensure the world’s nuts are corralled, ever-opportunistic Europe and China enjoy the fruits of our labors. In the place of gratitude, they hide their good fortune either under silence or by whining about American hegemony and imperium.

If the Democrats would stick to fiscal propriety — along the lines of Walter Mondale’s cries about Reaganomics and soaring deficits — they, like Mondale, would probably still lose, given strong Reagan-like incumbent leadership on national security. But they would lose without destroying the Democratic party for a generation, which may well be the case should they continue to be on the wrong side of history about Iraq.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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