Has Iraq Weakened Us?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Commentary Magazine

Whatever the results of the elections scheduled for late January in Iraq, a new pessimism about that country, as well as about the larger war on terror, has taken hold in many circles in the United States. Serious observers, not to mention shriller commentators like Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, have concluded not only that the United States is stuck in a hopeless quagmire in Iraq, but that our unwise unilateral intervention there is having painful repercussions both for our position as an honest promoter of reform and for our diplomatic and military maneuverability elsewhere in the world.

Joining the pessimism, Alistair Horne, the eminent British military historian, recently likened the American situation in Iraq to the French debacle in the “brutal Algerian eight-year war”; his obvious inference was that the ultimate denouement will be a similarly abrupt and humiliating Western withdrawal. Horne could adduce much apparent evidence to support this depressing proposition: the instability in the Sunni triangle over the last two years, mounting American combat fatalities, a seemingly endless insurgency, the increasing reluctance of allies to support in any serious material way the world’s lone superpower, and a failure of moderate Iraqis to step forward and deny sanctuary to the terrorists in their midst. The more jihadists, Baathists, and mujahideen that Americans kill, the more of them have seemed to pour into Iraq from Syria and other places in the neighboring Islamic world, either for pay or out of religious zeal. As for the Iraqi “street,” it appears to be both repulsed and paralyzed by this terrorist barbarity, and above all uncertain whether the Americans will stay long enough to ensure either safety or the promised democracy.

Meanwhile, American efforts at democratization are the object of much criticism at home, both on pragmatic and ideological grounds. Even some supporters of the war have come to see these postbellum efforts as naïve, misconceived, or simply too taxing in the tribal and factional circumstances of Iraq. A November 2004 article in Reason, subtitled “Twilight of the Liberal Hawks,” surveyed the second thoughts of a number of pundits and columnists, among them Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Kenneth Pollack, Fareed Zakaria, Andrew Sullivan, and Michael Ignatieff. Each of them, unhappy in his own particular way with the failure to deal with the post-April 2003 insurrection in Iraq, has criticized the Bush administration not only for its conduct of the Iraq operation but, at least by implication, for the much more ambitious project of an American-led democratizing of the greater Middle East.

The newly perceived area of strategic crisis emanates worldwide from its current center in Baghdad. With over 130,000 troops and $100 billion tied up on the ground in Iraq, where, critics ask, are we to find ready reserves for other hot spots on the horizon? Aside from the boiling Middle East, the Balkans are not yet pacified; our relationship with the South Koreans is in a state of dangerous flux; and Japan, lacking its own strategic arsenal, is sandwiched between a rising China and a nuclear North Korea. Add in the worry over protecting Taiwan, instability in the former Soviet republics, leftist rumblings in South America, and the United States may stand in need of additional and sizable rapid-reaction forces that it shows no signs of being able to recruit, train, or pay for in time to deal with most emergencies.

Nor is it only a matter of a current shortage of manpower. Looming domestic problems—a declining dollar, huge budget deficits, and dependence on overseas capital—are exacerbated by the fact that we have committed over a third of our available combat strength to Iraq and do not have the ready funds to recreate the divisions lost to budget cuts in the 1990’s. It is at least partly with this perceived gap between responsibilities and resources in mind that even some conservatives have begun to weigh in with regret. In June 2004, William F. Buckley, Jr. concluded: “If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.” Although Buckley has since offered different thoughts, George F. Will still appears as pessimistic as he was when he announced in the headline of a May 2004 column: “Time for Bush to See the Realities of Iraq.”

Finally, a number of retired generals and admirals—Wesley Clark, William J. Crowe, Barry McCaffrey, Tony McPeak, William Odom, Stansfield Turner, and Anthony Zinni—have worried publicly over the demands placed on the United States in Iraq and the specter of another open-ended, Vietnam-like commitment sapping American assets, troop morale, and public support for the military. Moved by the hard facts of finite resources and the soft reality of censure at home and abroad, these former-officers-turned-political-commentators emphasize our increasing vulnerabilities and voice a reluctance to exercise any further American power abroad except under the aegis of the United Nations and with de-facto NATO blessing.


Political prognoses in wartime are notoriously mercurial, hinging on the weekly eddies of the battlefield. But these are sometimes poor indicators of larger strategic currents. If one thing can be said with confidence about Iraq, it is that the story is not over, since so far the daily bombings have neither prompted American withdrawal nor derailed scheduled elections and reforms. In World War II, the bloodiest moment of the Pacific theater was at Okinawa, finally declared secure a mere nine weeks before the Japanese surrender, while in Europe the Battle of the Bulge, a slog that cost more American lives than the drive to the Rhine, was not finished until only about 100 days before Germany collapsed. What can be seen in hindsight, and only in hindsight, is that while Americans were being butchered in Belgium and on Sugar Loaf Hill, larger forces were insidiously working to doom Germany and Japan in short order. The last gasps of resistance are sometimes the bloodiest and most unexpected.

Just so, Afghanistan a year ago was supposedly a hopeless case, torn apart by warlords and Taliban resurgence, and unfit for elections; today the country is mostly on the back pages, as if democracy were de rigueurfor a nation recently dismissed as a relic of the Dark Ages. Similarly, with all the news of bombings and beheadings coming from Iraq, the larger picture, not so easily deciphered, shows signs of real progress in most of the country. The long overdue retaking of Falluja and ancillary military operations have sent their own signal: that a reelected George Bush intends to ensure the installation and the survival of a legitimately elected Iraqi government. The specter of that constitutional authority sending troops to quash mercenaries, Baathists, and Wahhabi jihadists is precisely what frightens al Qaeda and other avatars of Islamic fascism, who have rightly grasped that their failure in the Sunni triangle will constitute a bitter defeat for global Islamic fundamentalism itself.

The American persistence in Iraq under difficult circumstances might also explain why potential enemies farther afield, from Teheran to Pyongyang, have so far decided not to seize the moment to press their luck with the United States. Meanwhile, the world at large appears more, rather than less, disposed to stand up to Islamic fascism and the terror it wages. Even less ambiguously, Pakistan, though often playing a duplicitous role in the past, has remained a neutral in the war on terror if not at times an ally, while its nuclear guru, A.P. Khan, is for the moment in retirement. On the issue of the dangers posed by Islamic extremism, nearly 3 billion people in India, China, Japan, and the former Soviet Union are more likely to favor than to oppose American counterterrorism efforts. Libya is suddenly coming clean about its own nefarious schemes and even opening its borders to African aid workers. Murmurs of democratic change are rumbling throughout the autocratic Gulf. Terrorists are not so welcome as they once were in Jordan, Yemen, or much of North Africa. Even Europe, stung by charges of profit-driven appeasement, and even the UN, reeling under financial and humanitarian scandals, are reconsidering their habitual modes of reflexive accommodation.

Do these developments guarantee a more secure world in the offing? Hardly. But they are positive indications of momentum—signs that themselves reflect the unexpected forcefulness of the American response to Islamic terrorism and its dictatorial supporters. Stop, or pull out of Iraq before a free society is secure, and the entire sequence of reform could operate in reverse, leading four or five Middle Eastern states instead to become either nuclear-armed or open havens for anti-Western terrorists—or both. The task of stabilizing Iraq is thus of enormous significance in a region that, thanks only to the United States and its coalition allies, may yet be forced to confront its dictators’ worst nightmare: not terrorist violence but televised coverage of citizens queuing up to vote in free elections and then arguing in an unfettered parliament.


There are lessons here for those who claim that American flexibility has become increasingly constricted and American choices all but foreclosed. In fact, as Iraq comes slowly under control, the opposite prognosis is at least as likely to be the case. Precisely because of proven American resolve in Iraq, the United States now commands both military and diplomatic options—well short of another Iraq-style invasion—that were not at its disposal previously.

The new stature enjoyed by America is especially germane in the Middle East itself. There, the first place where diplomatic and political initiatives could usefully be exercised is in the problematic triad of Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. The U.S. might, to begin with, pressure the UN Security Council to go beyond its recent call for Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon by demanding internationally supervised elections, to follow immediately upon the departure of the Baathists.

Both Iran and Syria, through their terrorist ganglia on the ground in the Bekaa Valley, can be counted on to try to strangle any such effort. But this is not 1983, when America retreated after Marines were murdered in Beirut and later bargained for hostages. Today the Lebanese, returning to their wonted entrepreneurialism, are tiring of the Baathist Syrians. Yasir Arafat is dead. And the Iranians are leery of American strikes against their nuclear facilities. It is thus a singularly opportune moment to stir worries about principled democratization; for nothing could be more dangerous to an untested dictatorship like Syria’s than to ring it with an enlarging circle of autonomous countries with free elections, unbridled radio and television, and uncensored Internet service. To Arabs in Syria and elsewhere who are increasingly aware that they enjoy neither the freedoms nor the prosperity that billions elsewhere take for granted, the appeal of such reform is potentially explosive.

Other equally bold diplomatic initiatives could be undertaken, their credibility similarly enhanced by the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, the present Middle-East-aid policy of the United States is a relic both of the cold war (pump oil and keep out Communists) and the 1979 Camp David agreements (subsidize Egypt). Such short-term measures, carrying the odor of entreaty if not of bribery, hardly reflect our current aim of promoting consensual government. With both Saddam and the Soviets gone, granting weapons and money to the regime in Cairo—nearly $50 billion since 1979—is becoming counterproductive. What advantages the United States receives in “moderation” is overshadowed by the venomous anti-Americanism that is the daily fare of millions of Egyptians, whipped up and manipulated by state-sponsored clerics and media.

As several congressional critics, most prominently Tom Lantos, have pointed out, America loses both ways: the money and the business-as-usual attitude send a message to others in the region that the United States will willingly subsidize anti-American hatred and promote an anti-democratic government in one place while trying to create the opposite elsewhere. True, a Hosni Mubarak is not an Assad or a Rafsanjani, and that must count for something in the volatile Middle East; but under the reign of Mubarak, Egypt has been turned into a kind of Afghanistan-of-the-mind, the intellectual and media mecca for anti-American and anti-Semitic hatred spread throughout the Arab world. We are in a war with both Islamic fascism and Arab autocracy for the hearts and minds of the Arab people, and sincere advocacy of the interests of the latter is the only way to head off a devil’s partnership of the former.

As part of President Bush’s democratic initiatives in the Middle East, financial or military support from the United States could, instead, be tied far more closely to constitutional reforms in places like Egypt, the Gulf States, North Africa, and Jordan. Such a policy, appealing directly to the citizenry of the Arab world, would also be invaluable when it comes to dealing with looming requests from the Palestinian Authority for still more cash aid. But the point is also general. Rather than cherry-picking the autocracies of the Middle East, with aid lavished on those who soundmost moderate, it makes far more sense to calibrate help with evidence of concrete steps toward democratization.

Elections have their place in such a policy, but, alone, they are not the be-all and end-all. Ten years ago, “one man, one vote, one time” was a valid description of so-called democratic reform in the Arab world. The risk then was that, through our fixation with plebiscites, we would become complicit in bringing to power not a democracy but a “demonocracy” in the form of anti-democratic clerics or Arafat-like killers. In the case of Arafat himself, crowned president of the Palestinian Authority in a “democratic” election with Jimmy Carter’s seal of approval, that deformity is precisely what happened.

Nor has the risk of democratic distortion abated. But we can hedge our coveted financial and diplomatic support with demands not merely for elections but for constitutional guarantees of human rights, market reforms, and free expression. In addition, though this is a trickier proposition, we can insist on evidence of liberalization as a precondition for continuing to pour billions of petrodollars into the region.

Pundits speak of poverty as the catalyst for terrorism in the Islamic world; in fact, far more often it is not the dearth but the spectacular abundance of wealth in Middle Eastern societies that has incited and then fueled the killers. In theocratic Iran, oil money is recycled both to Hizballah and the nuclear-weapons program. In Saudi Arabia, Western dollars translate into Wahhabi mosques and madrassas all over the world. Saddam Hussein not only corrupted much of the industrialized Western world via the UN’s Oil-for-Food program but had earlier attacked four countries with his petrodollar-acquired arsenal. Al-Jazeera, the propaganda successor to Pravda, and critical to the insurrectionists’ efforts in the Sunni triangle, is an indirect dividend from Qatar’s oil revenues.

If Americans have learned anything from the careers of Qaddafi, the Saudi royal family, Saddam Hussein, and the Iranian clergy, it is that huge petroleum profits accruing among illegitimate autocrats are a recipe for global terrorism and regional havoc. One way to end the present pathology is for the United States, accepting that concerns for our national survival can sometimes trump the logic of finding the cheapest energy source, to develop a policy that helps drive down world petroleum prices. Another option is far more aggressively to promote democratic reforms among the petrol sheikdoms themselves. A third is to do both. Given the entry of India and China into the world petroleum market, fostering tighter global demand while potentially circumscribing our own clout, the hour is more urgent than ever; but the Middle East is also, and once again thanks to the ongoing reform of Iraq and Afghanistan, more fluid and perhaps more promising than ever.


Political initiatives come in more than one form. A more muscular way of dealing with autocratic regimes involves direct support for dissidents and pro-democratic reformers, including elected ones. Fair elections that lead to constitutional government should be a non-negotiable proposition; if Sunni or other extremists object, as in Iraq, then it might be made clear that they will be left to carry on a struggle not only against the majority of the local population but also against an internationally recognized government backed in the last resort by the American military. We wish to avoid civil war; but, like it or not, in championing the formerly despised of Iraq, the United States is engaged in landmark social, political, and cultural upheavals, and it is naïve to think that the Kurdish-Shiite coalition will be denied majority rule.

Iran is a locus classicus of what might be accomplished by encouraging indigenous grassroots reformers. The dilemma facing the United States is well known: stopping Iran’s nuclear program is vital, yet both action and inaction have their unsavory costs. Unlike in Syria or in Saddam’s Iraq, there is, by every credible report, broad and active internal opposition to the Iranian mullocracy. But not only would military action against Iran’s dispersed nuclear installations be operationally difficult, but the ensuing worldwide hysteria would possibly embolden the regime to move against the dissidents (they were nearly wiped out during the 1980’s under cover of Iran’s war with Iraq).

Yet inaction, leading to an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, could yield the same deleterious effect: a triumphant regime now feeling secure enough to deal summarily with its internal opponents. In this wait-and-see moment, it is therefore all the more incumbent on the United States to step up its covert support for democratic dissidents. Even more importantly, today’s underground reformers could be helped to evolve into openly organized groups, analogous to the refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, Solidarity in Poland, or the contras in Nicaragua—human-rights cadres capable of mounting a public campaign against the Iranian regime that might resonate in European capitals as well as among our own elites. Such advocacy does not mean we should be in the business of selecting the leaders of these groups, let alone dictating their agendas or masterminding their tactics; those who suffer first-hand repression know better than we what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. But if America is to win the current death struggle in the Middle East, we must aggressively promote democratization in Iran—and Syria—before both of them undermine it across the border in Iraq.

In line with this ambitious agenda, there are also military options available. Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles and four-day bombing campaigns—complete with mandatory cessations before Ramadan or reprieves when Arab royalty was reportedly lunching with would-be targets—were poor substitutes for real action. But under the present, radically changed conditions, stand-off bombing remains a valuable consideration. Unlike in the 1990’s, the United States has already shown that it can and will topple Islamic fascists on the ground—that no tactic is any longer taboo for Americans. The old, post-Mogadishu charge that the United States will not risk a fight on the ground has been disproved. Thus, bombing can be an end in itself or a precursor to something more, and we can leave it to others to do the guessing as to which course we will follow.

Targets of retaliation from the air include potential nuclear-weapons plants, identified nationals conducting terrorist bombing operations abroad, or visible signs of material aid flowing to jihadists across a border. Military action of this kind would serve not only to erode a country’s military assets and damage its infrastructure but to bring humiliation upon its ruling power. In some case, the threat of retaliation might itself suffice. If Syria, for example, continues to allow ex-Baathists to plot and fund insurrection in Iraq or to serve as a transit station for jihadists out to kill Americans, then Secretary of State Rice might present Bashar Assad with a list of military targets that could, without warning, be systematically destroyed from the air.

The problem with our 1990’s air campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Africa was transparent: our enemies knew that this was the last, not the first, stage of American retaliation and comprised the full extent of our military options. That perception is why we derived only a partial punitive benefit from Operation Desert Fox in Iraq or from striking back in Afghanistan and Sudan, and sparked little interest among the targeted in changing their ways. In the pre-9/11 world, such tactics were also largely predicated on the promise of few if any casualties, for us or even for our adversaries. Today’s goal, by contrast, is to protect the democratic process in Afghanistan and Iraq against any in the region who threaten it, and to do so without necessarily investing American ground troops in additional theaters. For this, air power once again is a condign instrument.


Flexibility in response is essential in a war against diverse enemies. After the success of air campaigns in Kosovo and Serbia, some observers proclaimed a new age of Air-Force exclusivity. In Afghanistan, Americans riding on donkeys and calling in GPS coordinates from their laptops suggested still another radically new military paradigm. After the 2003 race to Baghdad and the retaking of Falluja in late 2004, we were happy we still had retrograde standbys like Abrams tanks and up-armored Humvees. The simple conclusion is that all assets and options are necessary, but not necessarily all the time.

America can always use more combat troops, planes, and ships, even if it is not advisable in every circumstance to pour assets into a theater in hopes that numbers can make up for what fighting alone can accomplish; the desirable size of the American military is not entirely the same issue as the proper number of soldiers to be deployed in any given situation. On the other hand, fighting need not take the identical form or incur the same costs everywhere. Another age-old lesson relearned from our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is that victory in one battle increases the range of options in the next and lessens the military adventurism of our enemies—just as an American setback does the reverse.

The removal of the Taliban and the election of Hamid Karzai were of historic importance. So too was the end of the Saddam Hussein mafia, and so, following the present long ordeal, will be the Iraqi elections. Without a doubt, Saddam’s Iraq was the most challenging of all the Middle East rogue regimes. The next step, reforming or changing the governments in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran demands its own flexible strategy and its own proper diplomatic and military calculus. But, contrary to the imagining of critics, the post-Iraq reformation of the Middle East will not necessarily have to be accomplished by the invasion of tens of thousands of American troops. Other remedies may well suit our national and humanitarian interests—strategies opened up, ironically, by our previous determination to use our ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by our will to see the process through to its end, without hesitation, apology, or compromise.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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