by Victor Davis Hanson
The Australian Financial Review
A shorter version of this essay recently appeared in the Australian Financial Review
Writing of the decline of the West — and the United States in particular — has been a parlor game from the time of doomsayers Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee to Paul Kennedy’s pessimism of the 1980s. Now the most recent serial epitaphs center on the Anglo-American experience in Iraq that will soon end, it is foretold, in defeat and a global loss of American prestige to the detriment of the West at large.
The extremists in the Middle East — Hamas, Hezbollah, and their Iranian and Syrian sponsors — are supposedly empowered as nearby Iraqi Islamists tie down the American Gulliver. Democracy, we are also lectured by leftists, realists, and isolationists alike, won’t work in the Muslim world. Instead elections only provide a veneer of legitimacy to ‘one-vote/one time’ terrorists and jihadists like Iraqi Shiites and Hamas.
Meanwhile, China merrily pushes ahead, piling up U.S. dollars as it trolls the Middle East for oil contracts. Other petrocrats — whether a Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez — cause international mischief with impunity. And they seem to win a pass from a distracted America that lacks an energy policy, other than borrowing profligately to power its Hummers and Chevy Tahoes.
North Korea and Iran may well become nuclear powers. With America bogged down in the Middle East, either one may use its frightening weapons against a Japan or Israel — or force neighboring decent nations to go nuclear to salvage regional deterrence. Either way the United States no longer has the resources or the will to put such atomic genies back into their bottles.
American armed forces are stretched too thin — and said to be exhausted after failing to stop the resurgent bloodletting not only in Iraq, but now in Afghanistan as well. A weakened George Bush reaches out to Democrats at home and Europeans abroad in vain. Both seem to be saying that their once loud calls for bipartisanship and multilateralism applied only to a strong rather than lame duck President.
Yet most of this entire bleak scenario is media-driven and bears little semblance to reality. While it is true that visible Western elites in politics, Hollywood, and the universities have proclaimed Iraq another Vietnam, and a harbinger of a needed global fall to come, few in the Pentagon, Wall Street, or Silicon Valley apparently are overly worried: military modernization and readiness, sky-high stocks, and new technologies seem oblivious to the fighting in Iraq. The American people are as against the war as much as they were once for it when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled. But their current unease is mostly because of the growing sense that the sectarians and zealots in Iraq simply aren’t worth another drop of American blood, not because the United States could not win should it apply the full extent of its armed power.
Yet Iraq, that just tried, sentenced, and executed Saddam Hussein, is hardly lost. If we add up all the American combat fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq since September 11, we have lost about fifty soldiers per month — less than 1% of the rate of fatalities during World War II.
We haggle over whether Iraq is in a civil war, but there is no unified opposition, with a rallying agenda that marshals forces to overthrow an elected government. No one is any longer yelling about “no blood for oil” or Halliburton conspiracies, but only wonderment over George Bush’s stubbornness in staying on until a viable government stabilizes.
Five years ago few knew or cared about Iran’s ongoing nuclear acquisition. Today it is ostracized, and its unhinged president is on his way to make the theocracy an international pariah. Yes, there was the usual violence on the West Bank, but now Hamas and Fatah fight each other as much as Israel. Pakistan is no longer marketing nuclear technology, and Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction. The Arab coffeehouse now talks of American naiveté not its Machiavellism, as a certain moral clarity has emerged that has put the onus on Middle Easterners themselves to put up or shut up in their tired harangues about the former absence of Western support for their democratic aspirations.
The Shiite-Sunni killing in Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, the war between Somalia and Ethiopia, all that reminds us that tribalism, religious intolerance, and autocracy — not the United States — are the source of such appalling violence and mostly indigenous phenomena. To let it be — as we did when Saddam slaughtered tens of thousands, Hafez al-Assad wiped out Hama, or a million died on the Iranian-Iraqi border — earns us the charge of criminal indifference as much as our present intervention to birth democracy ensures us the opprobrium as naifs or imperialists.
Elsewhere nothing much has changed. The American economy is in transformation but booming, still three times larger than its closest competitor in Japan. Last month federal income revenues reached an all-time high, as interest rates, unemployment, and inflation are at historic lows. Globalization continues unabated — a synonym for Westernization and Americanization in particular. China will soon have a rough rendezvous with environmentalism, unionism, suburban malaise, and most of the other dislocations that the West has long ago weathered from the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century.
What is changing, however, is not the influence and power of the United States, but perceptions of such prompted by America’s own unhappiness over the inability to establish a democracy quickly in the heart of the ancient caliphate after the three-week victory over Saddam Hussein. Our technological prowess and spiraling wealth have left the Western public with expectations of instantaneous results. In war — after Panama, Bosnia, and Kosovo — that means victory without losses; in peace, the absurd notion that if we aren’t perfect in our execution, we are not good in our intent.
Europe — with its vaunted constitution in peril, stagnant economic growth, unassimilated minorities, demographic stasis and puny militaries — treads carefully. The notion that Americans may think they are in trouble cheers many. But privately they rightly fear even more that the United States might just do what continental intellectuals dream of — withdraw from the world stage. That would mean pacifist Europeans would have to rely on their utopian principles to reason with an energy-rich Russia, a nuclear Iran, and radical Islamist or autocratic regimes cross the Mediterranean and in the nearby Middle East.
So there is real danger from the fallout from Iraq. But it is not that the United States must pack up, in an admission of its new limitations. Rather the daily mayhem and its attendant criticism have tired Americans to the point that the notion of pulling in our horns and letting the world be seems attractive and guilt-free as never before.
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson