Challenge upon Challenge

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

There is a new sort of war in the Middle East, brought on by the need to engage terrorists on their ground — and by the terrorists’ savvy new response, which often nullifies Western advantage.

Once the jihadists grasped that America and Israel were no longer content with punitive retaliation, largely by air, but would instead fight to achieve larger political aims by winning hearts and minds, the terrorists changed their tactics. So successful have they been that, after nearly four years in Iraq, the U.S. military cannot secure Baghdad. Saddam is gone, and our ground troops are backed by billions of dollars, the finest air force in civilization’s history, sophisticated technology, and advice from seasoned counterinsurgency veterans. Yet the Sunni Triangle is still not safe for anyone.

The same dilemma frustrates even Israel, that veteran of counterterrorism. We are told that, after a month in Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Forces are no closer to destroying Hezbollah’s Katyusha missiles than they were to eliminating the even more primitive Kassem rockets Hamas launched from Gaza — notwithstanding the Arab fear of taking on the IDF as in the conventional wars of 1967 and 1973. It almost seems that the less the United States and Israel worry about a Syrian armored corps or an Iranian air wing, the more loath they are to fight Iraqi insurgents or Hezbollah, because of the difficulty of cleaning up terrorist enclaves and the public-relations fiascos that follow in the global press.

Why, critics moan, can’t prosperous Western societies, sobered by September 11 and possessing superb conventional militaries and sophisticated anti-terrorism forces, overwhelm this latest generation of ragtag jihadists — and convey the importance of victory to the world at large? After all, aren’t the terrorists’ arsenals limited to cobbled-together IEDs, outdated and underpowered missiles, suicide bombers, and rocket-propelled grenades?

The West’s GPS- and laser-guided bombing was supposed to usher in a new age of warfare. Islamic terrorists even in faraway Afghanistan were no longer immune to missiles that could appear from nowhere and shatter their remote caves. And precision weapons allowed us to minimize civilian casualties and avoid the collateral damage of Vietnam-style bombing. But the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon — and even NATO’s 1998 bombing campaign in Serbia — suggests otherwise. As the Americans have learned in Baghdad, and the Israelis in southern Lebanon, it is not easy to use commandos and specially trained anti-terrorist forces to quickly defeat insurgents who know that time is on their side and that any death — enemy or friend, civilian or combatant — advances their cause. It is much easier to create misery than to prevent it — especially when the general suffering of the people is blamed on the prosperous Western interloper and so aids the cause of the terrorist.

In short, for a variety of reasons, many of the advantages of postmodern warfare seem to lie with the insurgents and terrorists.

First, it matters less than ever that the global arsenal of munitions is largely designed in the West. While all the world’s militaries are parasitic on technologies and weapons expertise that originate in Europe and the United States, it is far easier to steal, buy, or be given weapons suitable for terrorists than to acquire those suitable for traditional armies. Tanks, jets, and missiles are expensive and hard to operate, and the Syrians and Iranians may not be able to field them in such a way as to establish operational equivalence with the Americans or Israelis. But they can buy off-the-shelf surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, mines, and machines guns. These are all cheap, require little expertise, and, in an urban landscape of hit-and-run attacks amid civilians, can provide a sort of parity against a Merkava tank or an Apache helicopter.

A second challenge is the widening gap between the quality of life in a successful West and that in a failed Middle East. Globalization has passed by most of the latter, which resists modernity and the bounty that accrues to open societies. Oil wealth epitomizes this dilemma and ensures the worst of both worlds: Petrodollars have a way of circulating to terrorists and paying for their weapons, but do not filter down to the Middle East street, and create social tensions rather than alleviate the general poverty that fuels Islamic fundamentalism.

Blaming the West for the Middle East miasma — which is actually induced by autocracy, statism, fundamentalism, and gender apartheid — lies at the heart of the jihadist creed; yet we often forget the military consequences of the wide gap between our wealth and theirs. Never have the criteria of victory and defeat been so radically redefined, with the mostly secular combatants on our side having so much to lose while the enemy dreams of an Islamic Paradise far more enticing than the slums of Sadr City or Jericho.

The more leisured and affluent an America at war becomes, the less willing it is to endure the deaths of its youths 7,000 miles away, in awful places like the Hindu Kush and the Sunni Triangle, in fighting deemed not immediately connected to the survival of the United States. The result is that the West self-defeatingly assumes it need not mobilize much of its enormous military strength to crush the impoverished enemies who in fact are growing more formidable than ever.

The West’s revulsion at losing lives in such savage theaters is only magnified by the televised savagery of beheading and mutilation. Most Americans — already tired of high oil prices, the spiraling debt, the monotony of the fist-shaking Arab Street, and the lack of sympathy from our so-called Muslim friends from Jordan to Iraq — are returning to the 1990s mood of punitive isolationism (“more rubble, less trouble”). The result is that our 2,500 war deaths in Iraq have eroded public support for war much more quickly than did the much more numerous losses in Vietnam. The message conveyed by the terrorists to the West when dead American contractors are strung up and mutilated outside Fallujah or Israeli corpses are dismembered in Lebanon is something like, “Go back to your 21st-century suburbs and leave the 7th century to us.”

Third, never has the West been more disparate and divided. In the present age, Hezbollah’s best chance of reining in the IDF is not through a cascade of missiles, but rather through E.U. and U.N. pressure. The French foreign minister flew to Lebanon to praise Iran as a force for “stability in the region” — the very regime that has promised to wipe Israel off the map and given Hezbollah rockets to try to do just that.

Indeed, condemnation from a Kofi Annan or a Javier Solana may ultimately harm Israeli operations more than a dozen suicide bombers could. Europe’s worries over reliable supplies of oil, its desire to recycle petrodollars through arms sales, its fear of Islamic terrorism, the ominous presence of unassimilated Muslim minorities in its midst, its envy of America the Hyperpower, and its old anti-Semitism all conspire to put it, with its economic and cultural clout, often on the side of our enemies — a fact well known to jihadists who simply repeat and add an Islamic touch to a well-established anti-Americanism.

And fourth, the anti-war movement has become more sophisticated than in the days of Vietnam. Of course there has been dissent from Western wars from the days of Aristophanes and Euripides; but today a number of modern and postmodern ideologies — multiculturalism, moral equivalence, and utopian pacifism — conspire with instantaneous media to make it nearly impossible to fight in the Middle East on the terrorists’ turf. It isn’t thought merely that Americans should not die in wars deemed “optional” given their great distance from the United States, but also that Americans should not kill the “other.” The fallen terrorist is usually not in uniform, and pictures of his charred remains are likely to be beamed around the globe as proof that another underprivileged civilian has been murdered by bullying American troops. Note that the media distinguish between civilian and military Israeli losses. Not so with Hezbollah: Everyone who dies in Lebanon is portrayed as a “civilian.” Remember, also, that the anti-Western Hezbollah has a very Western media-relations department, whose director, for all his hatred of America, issues American-style business cards complete with an e-mail address.

Sometimes the obvious exceptions prove the new rules. Bill Clinton was able to extend the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia for 77 days of televised carnage, in which hospitals, trains, embassies, and apartment buildings were inadvertently hit and civilians killed. Unlike President Bush, he asked for authorization from neither Congress nor the U.N. Security Council. What, then, explains his relative freedom from criticism, when President Bush was attacked during the first few days in Iraq, and Israel was demonized after a week of bombing in Lebanon?

Turning to the home front, there were no American casualties in the Balkans. NATO planes (there were no ground troops deployed) bombed from 30,000 feet, reducing the probability of broadcasts showing mea culpas from captured American soldiers or coffins rolling off military jets at Dover Air Force Base. More significantly, the United States attacked a European and Christian country, not a Third World and Islamic one. Thus the Left could not romance Milosevic and his Serbian army as underdog victims of color like the equally fascist Arafat, who had the great advantage of wearing a kaffiyeh.

So strong is the tug of multicultural romance that it trumps even the revulsion of Western progressives at the illiberal jihadist agenda, with its homophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, and racism. Even black leaders have often voiced empathy for the enemies of Israel, as if Palestinian radicals were fellow civil-rights advocates and not chauvinists who publish racist cartoons of Condoleezza Rice.

But there is another unspoken problem. The United States has usually waged war most effectively with Democratic presidents — Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy — who appear as reluctant warriors forced to fight, rather than with supposedly bellicose right-wingers who “enjoy” settling issues by force. This is an increasingly important factor in a therapeutic society that has chosen to ignore the tragic truth that wars will continue to break out until the nature of man changes.

Again, note the absence of criticism when Clinton failed in 1998 even to approach Congress or the United Nations, and compare it with the hysteria that met George W. Bush when he did both before going into Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s talking points come right from the Western Left — from the myth that the Iraq War was about oil, to the evils of Halliburton, to the “war crimes” at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. When Senator Kennedy claims that we are continuing the work of Saddam Hussein or Senator Durbin compares our actions to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, the jihadists fathom all too well that it matters little to the West that its enemies are awful — since the West seems happy to declare itself worse.

So, in the future, how will America — particularly under presidents who cannot posture as reluctant liberal warriors — fight well-trained terrorists and insurgents who have access to lethal weapons and who use the media to portray themselves as sympathetic victims?

The West has ways of checking these checks on its conventional power. And its options extend beyond improvements in military technology that can lessen both its own losses and collateral damage. In an interconnected and globalized world, the example of Western consensual law and economic prosperity can undermine insurgents by winning over the proverbial hearts and minds of their countrymen. For all the slurs against neoconservatism, it is to our advantage that we are now more likely to be caricatured as dreaming idealists than as cynical realists. And if in the short term terrorists find it helpful that explosions and mayhem are aired daily on Western television, in the long term globalization, democratization, and international communications will undermine the parochial world of the Islamic fundamentalist and the Middle East patriarch.

In free societies, the best weapon against those who choose not to fight is simply to tell the public — constantly and candidly — why we should fight. This is true even in ugly wars that present only bad and worse choices. Western armies always do better when a Pericles or a Franklin Roosevelt explains — rather than asserts — how difficult the task is, what the enemy is up to, and how we will, as in the past, ensure its defeat. For all the talk of Vietnam, one forgets that America has so far been quite successful in preventing another 9/11 and removing fascist governments from Afghanistan and Iraq, and that its subsequent efforts to establish lasting democracies may yet prevail.

Unfortunately, the United States will probably have to fight more wars, in places and in ways it would otherwise not choose, and against ever more sophisticated terrorists. What we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq — sometimes well and sometimes not so well — will not impede us from achieving our objectives. But neither will it help us — unless we take time to learn from our recent history.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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