Country at a Crossroads

November 2 will say a lot about the American people, and our future

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

Had Lincoln lost the 1864 vote, a victorious General McClellan would have settled for an American continent divided, with slavery intact. Without Woodrow Wilson’s reelection in 1916 — opposed by the isolationists — Western Europe would have lost millions only to be trampled by Prussian militarism. Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionism saved liberal democracy. And without the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and his unpopular agenda for remaking the military, the Soviet Union might still be subsidizing global murder.

This election marks a similar crossroads in our history. We are presented with two radically different candidates with profound disagreements about how to conduct a historic worldwide war. We should remember that all our victorious past presidents were, at the moments of their crises, deeply unpopular precisely because they chose the difficult, long-term sacrifice for victory over the expedient and convenient pleas for accommodation (if not outright capitulation). We are faced with just such an option today: a choice between a president whose call for patience and sacrifice promises victory, and a pessimist stirring the people with the assurances that we should not have fought, and now cannot win, the present war in Iraq.

Our terrorist enemy has no uniforms or aircraft, but nevertheless struck at the very heart of our financial and political capitals in a fashion unimaginable by Nazi Germany, Tojo’s Japan, or the Soviet Union. The Islamic fascists’ creed is Hitlerian, their methodology primeval. Their aim is not mere territory: They want nothing less than the destruction of Western freedom, through the takeover of the Middle East and the use of its petroleum wealth to craft a nuclear, global caliphate, Dark Aged in its values, 21st-century in its lethality.

This war against Islamic fascism is now a quarter-century old, and began with the Iranian seizure of the American embassy in 1979; the apex of this escalating assault — owing to past American neglect and appeasement — was September 11. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry — so unlike their Democratic predecessors FDR, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy — have seen the struggle not as one for national survival, but at best as the lamentable dividend of inequality or poverty, and at worst as the felonious behavior of a few miscreants who seem to eat, sleep, and bank in the upper air rather than in the houses and streets of real countries. Thus arose John Kerry’s revealing use of “sensitive” and “nuisance” to suggest that we need to return either to writs and indictments or the occasional cruise missile — i.e., the status quo before the world changed on 9/11.

The reaction of George W. Bush could not be more different. He accepts the conflict as a global war of ideas against states that harbor terrorists. He recognizes it as a struggle that involves millions in the Middle East, people who will reluctantly join bullying fascists should they have any premonitions of American inaction (much less defeat or Madrid-style capitulation). Bush’s aim is not merely to defeat the terrorists today, but to eradicate them and isolate their supporters through a bold tripartite strategy. It is as breathtakingly simple as it is logical: kill or capture the al-Qaeda purveyors of death; end renegade regimes, such as the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, that have a long history of subsidizing terrorists; and promote democratic reform in the Middle East. The push for such liberalization rests on the theory that democracies rarely go to war against their own kind — and, more important, that democracies marginalize religious extremists internally by free discussion over, and collective responsibility for, solving national problems.

By any historical standard, the Bush doctrine is working. In just over three years, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein have been eradicated. Consensual societies are starting to emerge in their place. Syria and Iran are jittery, fearing new global scrutiny over their longstanding, but heretofore excused, terrorist sympathies. Libya and Pakistan have flipped, renouncing much of their past villainy. Saudi Arabia and the other autocracies of the Gulf region feel the new pressure of American idealism. For all their vocal resentment, strategically critical sheikdoms are inching toward political reform and terrorist-hunting.


Bush’s popularity problems, however, are threefold, and explain the present divisions in this country over the war. First, this is an election year in the postmodern age. Two- and three-minute media streams from the battlefield are delivered with amateurish editorializing in real time to American living rooms, and are then recycled as political soundbites. Given both the wealth and security of American society, and the spectacular ability of our military to defeat enemies at minimal costs, Americans have come to claim as their birthright automatic victory without casualties. To a country that lost hundreds an hour at the Bulge and Iwo Jima, 1,000 fatalities in three years to liberate 50 million people 7,000 miles away might seem an amazing achievement; but 60 years later, voters of a far richer society, inundated with political commercials showing the missing limbs or flag-draped coffins of a few, are told that any sacrifice is tantamount to failure. We have forgotten that in war there are always setbacks like looting, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, or the rise of a Zarqawi — but that the key is determining to what degree such reversals impair the overall success of the war. So far in Iraq, they simply do not, despite the media sensationalism.

Second, the president’s forte is direct action and singular resolve, not Churchillian oratory. Yet because of the stealthy nature of our enemy — and owing to decades of multiculturalism, utopian pacifism, and moral equivalence in our schools and popular culture — the American people are confused about the nature of the enemy. Are we really threatened with another 9/11? Cannot allies and aid preclude our further military action? Are we overreacting, captive to religious, racial, or cultural chauvinism? Does war ever solve problems? Bush must remind Americans almost daily that the threat is real, that we are winning a necessary war, and that the outlook is bright. And he must do so in such a fashion as to drown out far more glib legions of political junkies, National Public Radio “experts,” the New York Times, and most of Hollywood.

Third, after the meteoric rise of Howard Dean’s boutique antiwar campaign in the Democratic primary season, both John Kerry and John Edwards retracted their prior Trumanesque bipartisan support of the war. Instead they sensed political capital in equating daily images of Americans killed with everything from alleged Halliburton profiteering to tax cuts for the wealthy. Their efforts have been energized by millions of dollars in third-party contributions, and sensationalized by the American elite in the arts, universities, and media, who are as culturally influential as they are politically weak and envious.

Indeed, precisely because the Democrats have lost the House, the Senate, the presidency, and perhaps soon the Supreme Court, they realized that the very future of the party and its liberal vision were on the line. Distortions about the war were therefore legitimate, if they achieved the necessary end of stopping the Republican tide. Thus we were treated to Senator Kennedy’s bombast that the war had been “cooked up” in Texas, Howard Dean’s hinting that George Bush might have known about September 11 in advance, and the Kerry campaign’s atrocious slur that the battle-scarred Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi, after addressing a joint session of Congress, was little more than an administration puppet.


A Kerry presidency would not be a setback for our present winning strategy; it would be an unmitigated disaster. Why such a pessimistic appraisal? First, Kerry’s own rhetoric has been abjectly defeatist, if not Orwellian. He promises to bring allies into a war he smears as having been waged in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He broadcasts in advance a timetable for withdrawal. His present positions are at odds with his own past votes to support the Iraq operation, which he has alternately praised and demeaned depending on the ephemeral news from the battlefield and its immediate impact on polling.

Senator Kerry also has a disturbing record of opposing America’s past armed struggles, as both a soldier and a senator, in the midst of hostilities. He returned from Vietnam to allege war atrocities against his fellow soldiers in the field, and met with enemy North Vietnamese representatives in Paris. During the first Gulf War, he voted against authorization even as troops were mobilizing in the desert sands to expel Saddam Hussein. Had Kerry’s position won out, Saddam would now have nuclear weapons and over 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and be idolized as the legendary Saladin come alive to the Arab Street. Even as we witness the first national vote in Afghanistan in 5,000 years, a brave Prime Minister Allawi steering his country toward elections, and unyielding Australians reelecting their war president in a landslide vote, a President Kerry would revert to his default of opposing further military efforts even as they are nearing victory.

Third, John Kerry has a telltale record of voting against most of the major weapons systems — bombers, tanks, and missiles — that are presently critical to the American military. Had his naïve visions trumped Ronald Reagan’s realism, the United States would not have had the military wherewithal to convince Mikhail Gorbachev that further armed Soviet resistance was futile and suicidal, and we could have won neither the first Gulf War nor the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During his current campaign, almost every criticism Kerry has voiced against the war has been crassly opportunistic, puerile, or bordering on the unhinged. Contrary to Kerry’s belief, a country that defeated Germany, Japan, and Italy with a handful of allies really can fight al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein at the same time. Thus Kerry’s own running mate, John Edwards, was quite right when he assured Democratic primary voters of the need to fight both the terrorists and Saddam: “I believe that this is not an either/or choice. Our national security requires us to do both, and we can.”

Saddam Hussein harbored legions of terrorists. Kurdistan was a haven for al-Qaeda offshoots. The infamous Zarqawi was welcomed to Saddam’s hospitals, and Iraqi intelligence had disturbing ties to the architects of the first World Trade Center bombing. Yet to say, as John Kerry does, that there was no connection between a fascistic Iraq and Middle East terrorism — and thus no need to remove Saddam — is not only counterintuitive and disingenuous, but also at odds with his own previous pronouncements that “it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.”

Kerry the Multilateralist has derided the current coalition of willing nations as either bought or impotent — and yet promises to bring Germany and France, both countries lacking the resolve and loyalty of our present allies, into a war that neither he nor they support. By definition, his own antiwar rhetoric promises to preclude future help and erodes the resolve of our present comrade-states in arms. He claims that we let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora (although at the time he praised the operation) — even though there has never been proof that Osama was actually trapped in Tora Bora. He repeats this canard endlessly, despite the fact that American commanders on the ground believed that the sudden influx of thousands of American troops into the high mountains of Afghanistan would not have changed the outcome of that successful campaign, and, indeed, might have impaired it.

On other strategic issues, Kerry’s judgment is equally disturbing. He once complained about American troops’ being unnecessarily based in Germany and Korea, only to criticize the president for taking the bold and long-overdue steps to begin withdrawing them. He claims that President Bush abruptly alienated the world — although Greeks publicly booed us on September 11, Palestinians danced, and European intellectuals wrote that it was warranted. That India, Russia, Japan, China, Britain, and Australia are closer than ever to the United States means little, so attuned is Senator Kerry to tired European voices of envy and resentment and Europeans’ long appeasement of Middle East roguery. We heard from Democrats that the war was for cheap petroleum and that our oilmen were conniving to hijack the natural resources of other peoples; then, when prices skyrocketed, they screamed that President Bush must now stand up for the American driver and castigate out-of-control, conniving Middle Eastern producers. Are we sinister and calculating, or naïve? Kerry chides the president for inaction in the Middle East, but the bold ostracism of Yasser Arafat, the overdue construction of an Israeli fence, the needed destruction of Hamas masterminds, and the proposed withdrawal from Gaza have led to a decrease in violence, the marginalization of extremists, and the hope for democratic reform in the West Bank.

In sum, a Kerry presidency will lack either the vision or the resolve to finish the war, resulting in a defeat for the United States in Iraq — with calamitous consequences for the brave reformers there, an end to liberal momentum in the Middle East, a reversal in the conduct of Libya, Pakistan, and the Gulf, and assurance to Syria, Lebanon, and Iran that the United States is conducting not war but a criminal investigation akin to efforts against gambling or prostitution. Chamberlain-like, we will return to the complacency of the pre-9/11 days, regarding the telltale signs of the destruction to come as mere “nuisances.” All the hysterical invective of John Kerry’s surrogates — like George Soros, Michael Moore, Terry McAuliffe, and Teresa Heinz Kerry — cannot change that bleak and depressing fact.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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