Critical Mass

We are reaching a showdown in this global war.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

We will ensure the peace in Iraq because of our support for consensual government, our massive infusion of material aid, and our respect for Iraqi sovereignty and culture. But none of this is possible without security, which is the dividend solely of military success.

Americans are still killed by terrorists in Iraq, but the frequency of such attacks is diminishing. Indigenous Iraqi defense forces are not yet formidable, but their ranks are growing. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is giving prevaricating interviews to the New York Times (as did a shaken Abu Abbas from Baghdad on the eve of American invasion). Turks, Russians, and French are not screaming about the United States’s attacking dictatorships, but scrambling to hunt down Islamic terrorists in their own midst. The military forces of the United States are stretched thin and costs are escalating, but in the postwar killing ground of Iraq they are still more deadly than last summer. Al Gore is employing hysterical language like “horrible” and “quagmire” right out of the lexicon of George McClellan, but the Baathists are not the Viet Cong, and our present military is not the conscription force of 1968. We are not worried about a nuclear China or Russia intervening — both have no affinity with Islamic fascists.

In all major wars there reaches a critical tipping point when the ultimate outcome of the conflict begins to become clear. Then the pulse of war really quickens, as allies, neutrals, and observers all scramble to adjust their allegiances to match the inevitable verdict to come on the battlefield. For all the scary ante bellum rhetoric about thousand-year Reichs and the defiant slogans of “We will bury you,” no one wishes to lose, or even be associated with defeat.

Athens in the Peloponnesian War, for example, fought Sparta for 20 years to a virtual stalemate. During those two decades of quagmire, Persia looked on, while the Aegean tributary states of Athens remained mostly loyal to the empire. But after the Athenian catastrophe at Sicily, the entire strategic landscape changed almost overnight.

It wasn’t that Athens’s subjects in Samos, Chios, or along the seaboard of Asia Minor suddenly found good reason to object to imperial democracy. Nor did Persia magically find hoards of money that could subsidize the construction of a Spartan fleet. Surely the Peloponnesian League itself did not abruptly in 411 B.C. think that building a fort a mere 16 miles outside of Athens was a necessary and heroic enterprise.

No, the war entered its final phases not out of ideology or even because of strategic breakthroughs — but rather due to perceived impetus and the probable verdict to come. After 40,000 Athenian imperial combatants were lost in Sicily, Persia thought that Sparta could at last destroy Athens — if given enough naval subsidies. Neutral Greek states began to fathom that they soon might be dealing with Spartan rather than Athenian hegemonists. And rebellious allies figured that Athenian green triremes with green crews would not be quite as prompt at putting down their rebellions.

Thucydides matter-of-factly described the realpolitik when he noted that “all of Greece was stirred under the influence of the great Athenian disaster in Sicily” — adding that other states came to believe “that the war would now be short, and that it would be credible for them to take part in.”

So it was in the Civil War in July 1863 once the tide of battle turned after Gettysburg and Vicksburg. As if by a miracle, border states began to talk of their strong Unionist, rather than Confederate, sympathies, while Great Britain concluded it was wise not to have entered the war. And the Emancipation Proclamation was seen as almost overdue rather than as incendiary.

Reflect on June 1941, when from the British Channel to the suburbs of Moscow, and from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, Nazi armies ran rampant. Spain, Turkey, and the Arab world openly bandied about their fascist sympathies, while South America and much of Asia likewise dismissed democracy as an historical artifact better left to musty histories of ancient Greece. After all, decadent Frenchmen of a failed republic had been steamrolled by the rise of new invincible ideologues who believed in blood and iron.

Yet by spring 1943 — less than three years later — fascism was seen not only as horrific, but, far worse, as increasingly impotent. It was not that the world suddenly discovered the horror of the death camps or came to its senses aboutMein Kampf, but rather after North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Stalingrad, the radical turnabout in the Atlantic, and the onset of huge formations of fighter-led bombers, millions began to think Hitler in fact was going to lose badly — and might take everyone who professed allegiance down with him.

I don’t know at what point Eastern Europe grasped that the Soviet Union was tottering and its planned uprisings were not going to follow the failures of past slaughters in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But after the rise of Solidarity, the deployment of Pershing missiles, the threat of Star Wars, and Ronald Reagan’s massive military buildup, the floodgates were unleashed and there was a mad rush not to be the last Soviet Communist in Europe.

There are plenty of third-world revolutionaries today, but very few who wave the hammer and sickle. Again, it is not that mankind ceased being naïve or duped, and woke up to the absurdities of Marxism and the mass murder that typically followed its implementation. Rather, very few wished to be associated with a losing ideology that offered no arms, patrons, or money — but a lot of misery, humiliation, and ridicule.

This war against the Islamofascists and autocrats of the Middle East is no different. Do not be cowered by their sick videos, the bombs with rat poison and screws, or the promise of a new Dark Age run by the likes of bin Laden. If we are now dismayed by Islamist terrorists from Turkey to Indonesia, and from the West Bank to the Sunni Triangle, it doesn’t mean it will always — or even for long — be so, given our increasing success and the unchanging nature of mankind that values power over principles, often quite tragically so.

Such a cynical assessment need not mean that we must deprecate the power of ideas, or must subscribe to such an amoral creed ourselves; but rather that we must not be naïve when we discover new allies who admire us for our strength and military prowess rather than our ideals and values. The reason that states are not rushing to install imams as rulers or open their borders to al Qaeda training camps is not that they like democracy, but rather that they are just now beginning to fear the dire consequences of such action.

Our enemies instead are now reeling — if ever so insidiously. They have lost the free use of Afghanistan. Saddam’s Baathists are little more than criminals and thugs in hideouts — soon to follow the fate of Saddam’s progeny, statues, and “Hammurabi Division.” Gone are Iraqi subsidies for suicide murderers, help for al Qaeda, and the stockpiling of huge caches of imported weaponry.

Indeed, Iraq has been trisected, with oil-rich Kurdistan and the Shiite south stabilizing, as the murderers operating in the Sunni Triangle are now isolated and in the cross-hairs of some pretty dangerous folk. Their desperate gambit to murder Italians, Spaniards, UN personnel, and other Iraqis has backfired — and has only solidified the world’s consensus that such killers deserve and will receive no quarter. It will take years to assess properly all the positive benefits that have accrued from the demise of Saddam Hussein — precisely because the full extent of his evil will take just as long to explore fully.

Whatever the legitimate grievances of the Chechens, their resort to suicide murdering and Islamic fundamentalism was a terrible mistake, since they cannot defeat Russia once it is mobilized and given a pass from an exasperated West. Whatever the horror of Hamas and its associated barbaric cabals, neither can such killers overwhelm a democratic Israel — thanks to Mr. Sharon, who for all the slurs and invective against him has proven that the IDF is both the more competent and most humane security force. Indeed, the West Bank terrorist gangs are ever so slowly, in their cruelty and barbarism, losing even some support among the Europeans — a hard thing to do, given Europeans’ historical anti-Semitism, concern for oil, fear of terror, and eagerness to triangulate against the United States.

From Paris to Rome, the Europeans, despite their fashionable anti-Americanism, continue to show fear, and with it, the beginning of sobriety. It is one thing to erode daily American public support for the trans-Atlantic relationship, a strong NATO, and the basing of our troops in Germany. But it is quite another to throw away the automatic willingness of the United States to come to Europe’s aid at the very time unassimilated Islamic populations are on the rise in Europe’s major cities, terrorist cells are spreading, and Berlin and Paris will soon be in range of an Iranian nuclear-tipped missile, its trajectory dependent on the wisdom and clear-headedness of a mullahcracy.

We are beginning the third year of this multi-theater conflict, and it resembles the Punic War after the Carthaginian defeat at the Metaurus in 207 B.C., the year of decision of 1863, or the autumn leading to Alamein and Stalingrad. Ever so slowly the momentum is building. If we stay resolute and tighten the noose around the Baathists, the days of the extremists in Iraq will be numbered even as the rest of the country begins to prosper. And the final victory will only embolden us and discourage our enemies. The war itself cannot be won in the Sunni Triangle, but it might well have been lost there.

The map doesn’t look good for a Syria. Its Bekka Valley terrorist enclave seems more like an atoll than a tidal wave. If Mr. Assad thinks that allowing terrorists to leave his borders to kill in Turkey, Israel, or Iraq is a good idea, he is either a lunatic or he is bent on his own destruction. Indeed, Israeli planes have already bombed his soil; the question of hot pursuit from Turkey is once again entirely in the hands of Ankara, not Damascus; and American jets will soon be on the verge of forgetting where the border between Syria and Iraq begins and ends. And if there were another September 11, then all voluntary restrictions on the use of the full extent of American power would be off — and the response would be too terrible to contemplate.

What is striking about the European reaction to Iran’s nuclear program is not its timidity, but rather its very existence — a slap on the wrist, true, but one impossible to imagine a mere three years ago. Elsewhere we were told daily that Pakistan was about to fall to the madrassas, exchange nukes with India, or rearm the Taliban. It may well do all that and more. But for now at least a few there are beginning to realize that the great experiment in Afghanistan and Iraq may work; that fundamentalism no longer scares the West, but is the surest way to get thousands of Pakistanis deported and the economy of Pakistan ruined.

One final observation: Very rarely in history do any of the belligerents quite realize what stage of the war they are actually in. The slugfest at Zama still followed Hannibal’s escape to Carthage. After Gettysburg there was the terrible summer of 1864 to come. The Battle of the Bulge followed both Normandy Beach and Stalingrad. And for much of the 1980s the world was sure that Soviet divisions were going to crush Polish steelworkers as a crumbling empire went out with a bang rather than a whimper.

So too we should expect a wave of desperate Saddamite attacks once Iraqis take control in July. October will be difficult as Baathists and al Qaedists hope to demoralize our electorate and bring in a Howard Dean or his clone and with him a quick American exit from Baghdad. Let us pray that the Olympics go well — despite the fact that they take place in the eastern Mediterranean, among a populace that is both without formidable military power and has expressed in a recent poll (by nearly a 90-percent majority) the belief that the United States is the chief threat to world peace. If the recent evidence from North Korea or Saddam’s nuclear progress before the first Gulf War is any indication, we should assume that Teheran is much closer to building a bomb than we think. And the billions we are spending and the lives we are losing in Iraq suggest to some that we have our hands full and should not pressure Iran, Syria, or other lunocracies — at precisely the time it is most critical that we do so.

But again the key is not to look at the present from the present but rather to imagine what it most likely will appear like ten years from now. From the rhetoric of the Democratic candidates, from the papers in Cairo, and from the videos of the fundamentalists, one would not believe the United States is turning the corner and on the road to a stunning victory, characterized by both competence and idealism. In the last two years our enemies have lacked not the will but the power to defeat us; we in contrast had more than enough power but not enough will. But all that is changing as we ever so slowly become angrier while they get weaker.

So we are witnessing right now the war’s critical turning point in these the most historic of times. What has been amazing about the war so far is not that we have been winning, but that we have been doing so — quite unlike our increasingly exhausted enemies — without the full mobilization of our vast economic, political, material, and human resources.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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