FAQ from the Blogosphere: An Interview with Victor Hanson

Private Papers

More than three years after September 11 and more than a year and a half after liberation of Iraq, how do you see the progress of the war on terror?

Hanson:  Inside Iraq we have a legitimate government at about the same 20-month timetable we saw in liberated Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban. Iraqis now are taking blame and winning praise for their own failures and successes.

The ripples are positive—from Libya’s revelations, Pakistani neutrality, and worry in the Gulf to elections in the West Bank and popular restiveness in Lebanon and Iran. And here at home? So far not another 9-11, but hundreds of would-be Atta’s locked-up—and despite cries of outrage from the ACLU left. The 2004 election gave us all a chance to listen to the respective arguments, and we voted to keep on course—and were rewarded by the amazing scenes in Baghdad last month.

A few weeks ago you wrote a great article summarizing in ten points the case for promoting democracy in the Middle East. Yet the Arab world (though not the Muslim world generally) has so far proved to be a region most inhospitable to democracy. How do you rate the chances of success for President Bush’s grand democratic project?

Hanson: 70-30 in Mr. Bush’s favor.

Look at the unrest in Lebanon, the voting in the West Bank, fear in Libya, pressure to reform from the Gulf to Egypt—all impossible without the removal and humiliation of Saddam Hussein, who, had he remained in power, would be nursing Arab pride by blaming us while he recycled petro-dollars, hand in glove with corrupt UN officials and Euros, for more weapons and his own debauchery.

When Hillary speaks about the need to get on board and support the elected government in Iraq—and Hillary does nothing unless she is convinced that at least 51% of the people agree with her—then you can see positive momentum. But if we stop, even hesitate, much less backtrack, then all will revert to the old status quo whose ultimate logic was 9-11.

How do you see the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship? Is it salvageable in the short term, or is the Old Europe likely to continue to see the United States as a greater threat than Islamofascism, nuclear Iran or imperial China?

Hanson:  I addressed this in a February 22 Wall Street Journal piece and will again in an upcoming American Enterprise Institute magazine essay.

Look, the more we talk about past  “shared values” and a once “common heritage,” the more we know the present problem: a postmodern Europe doesn’t want to spend any money on defense, and is furious that the US doesn’t follow its multilateral lead in a policy that could be described as moral sanctimoniousness while millions die and the West totters—whether that is a matter of Milosveric, Darfur, the Taliban, or Saddam.

So we are on to them at last; here is the rule regarding these strange folk who peddle weapons to communist China, whitewash Hizbollah, fund Hamas, and looted Iraq: the degree to which Europe is amoral by either its commission or negligence is directly proportional to the degree we see in its media and state spokesmen moral posturing and invective against the United States.

So… we sit tight, praise them, and keep our powder dry, looking to see the fall out from Islamicism on their shores, and whether they curb anti-Semitism, get their birthrates up, rearm and make a real alliance, avoid antagonizing a surrounded Russia, and buy off an Iran or crazy former Soviet Republic. We cannot do much in all that and so should expect very little from them and get ready for some pretty crazy things coming out of Europe in the next few years. NATO as we know it is dead, and we have no idea what will follow—so we praise it to the skies.

For the past few years I recall you writing frequently about the growing disenchantment in the United States with the rest of the world, which (with some notable exceptions) seems to be either hostile or indifferent. How likely is the future scenario that would see increasing American isolationism accompanied by a world-wide descent into new Dark Ages?

Hanson:  George Bush’s biggest problem is not democratization of the Arab World, but convincing the American people that these seemingly ungracious people are worth the effort in our blood and treasure—and that general rule applies also to NATO, the EU, the UN etc.

An American gets up, reads his paper, turns on her computer, watches his TV, and gets hit with “why did Dick Cheney wear a parka at Auschwitz? why was Bush in Texas during the Tsunami? why are Americans “stingy”?—all this in-between images and sound-bites of some third-world tyrant or half-witted UN functionary lecturing about morality, a Middle Eastern thug threatening us, and a subsidized European explaining to the world how awful the US really is.

And our reaction? Increasingly, it is to say, “Heck with these lunatics; let them be”—especially when an American’s empirical sense is something quite different: ‘why do they keep coming here? why do they keep copying our popular culture? why do they keep expecting our help when the weather, or nature, or enemies act up? and why are they becoming more like us than we like them?’

So for the greater good, the President must hold his temper, go against his Texas nature, calm us, and make us endure the petty slight for the greater good to come later—but it’s hard and all of us at times tire of a mostly hypocritical world outside our shores.

In my case, I’ve met in America, mostly on campuses and among students, one too many Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Arabs, or Koreans who after becoming a naturalized US citizen or a legal resident alien, begin praising the country they under no circumstance wish to return to while damning the country that they most certainly will not leave under any circumstance. I am sure the psychotherapists have various names and classifications for this sick syndrome; but abstract identification of it does not make it any easier to stomach in the here and now. So that is the burden of our diplomats and so far they are doing wonderfully.

Western culture has over millennia created a particularly deadly and effective fighting force (the point you expanded upon in “Carnage and Culture”). Do you think we are likely to meet our match in the near future?

Hanson:  Only if someone else follows the Western paradigm better than we do—and thus has a freer society, more transparency, a freer economy, more stable democratic government, a greater devotion to merit and openness of views and ideas, etc.; but I don’t see that happening quite yet.

The other scenario that a China or the Arab world, like the Ottomans of old, can cherry-pick Western technology and add its veneer to their own unfree societies to defeat us with our weaponry and their numbers and fanaticism, doesn’t have a lot of historical precedent. The key is not ‘them,’ but us—to what degree will we continue to value freedom, invest rather than merely spend, and pass on stern values not just sensuality to our children?

One of the themes running through your work is the fact that the continuing success of the Western (and American in particular) culture cannot be taken for granted. For example, unrestrained immigration unaccompanied by assimilation has the potential to weaken our societies from within. How long will we be able to maintain the edge over the rest of the world not only in the face of other powers banding together against the hegemon but also in the face of internal assault on Western values and institutions?

Hanson: I worry about all of that of course, especially the wages of 30 years of multiculturalism, utopian pacifism, and moral equivalence taught from K-12 and enhanced in our universities. It is always dangerous to lecture young people on the “right” way of thinking that they almost immediately recognize as providing the “wrong” answers when they confront the world about them outside the campus in an honest, empirical, inductive, and no-holds barred sort of examination.

The immigration issue is more than just the mechanics of the present mess; it is symbolic as well. Can a postmodern America still insist on a distinctive multiracial, but uniform culture with a proven record of morality and success? Can it demand of immigrants who chose willingly to come to do so legally and to emulate us, rather than we them? Can we say the law is not ‘break it and then when convenient find refuge in it’—as if an illegal alien has an innate right to a legal driver’s license when it is a matter of cruising on a freeway in California rather than standing in line at a US consulate office in Mexico City for a legal visa.

Can very wealthy, very pampered, and very leisured Americans still muster the courage to say to a Vicente Fox, “Sorry, we did not inherit this great country to surrender its borders to you, so you can continue the corruption and expect us to be your safety valve to stave off popular uprisings from very exploited and brave people against your failed system? Or is that too judgmental, insensitive, culturally chauvinistic, or un-nice?

If so, then I am very worried, since truth married with conviction are all that matter, not consensus for consensus sake and lies and untruth put into the service of a supposedly good cause. A lot of zany but brilliant minds from Plato to Hegel to Spengler and other nihilists thought we couldn’t pull off the wealth of capitalism married to the indulgence of democracy without becoming “men without chests”. It is the duty of this generation of Americans to prove them wrong. And I still think we will.

You are currently writing a history of the Peloponnesian War. What lessons does Thucydides have for the present day?

Hanson:  Yes, it is due out from Random House in August. Thucydides reminds us that, contrary to modern behavioralists, human nature is constant and thus predictable, and thus as well history is useful and not like 19th-century biology that is rendered obsolete by a radically changing technology that allows the discovery of the cell or atom. And he warns us that no people, however wealthy and free, get a pass from history, and that they have to struggle daily to ensure that they do not lose what was given to them.

[These questions also appear on Chrenkoff]

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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