Who loses and who wins in the high-stakes poker in Iraq?
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
It is not hard to determine who wishes the United States to succeed in rebuilding Iraq along lines that will promote consensual government, personal freedom, and economic vitality: Hardly anyone. At least, few other than the Iraqi and American people.
Surely not the Baathist holdovers in the Sunni triangle. They will not only incur hatred for their past sins from a newly empowered democratic citizenry, but will also be doomed to slough off to the sidelines, since their antiquated skills — acquired through intrigue, murder, and banal bureaucracy — will be of less use in a newly structured society. The Saddamites are as desperate to disrupt the new order as Nazi holdovers were in the spring of 1945, or Japanese fanatics at the arrival of Americans in August of the same year.
The theocrats all over the region wish us to fail as well. Modernism emanating from Iraq would undermine the strictures of the clerics, in empowering women and eroding the fossilized structures of a tribal society. After all, in the war’s aftermath, Arab Idol (dubbed another “American invasion” by Islamists) — a thinly veiled spin-off of the American television show — was suddenly earning a 40-million-viewer market share, as Middle Easterners voted for pop stars in a way that they never could for their own leaders.
In geopolitical terms, what are Shiite extremists to do in Iran should their more prosperous brethren in Iraq find that freedom, affluence, and Islam are not always so incompatible after all? In truth, the mullahs in Tehran are in a race against time to either subvert the Shiite-dominated secular government in Baghdad, or obtain nuclear weapons that might galvanize fanatics with the promise of an Islamic bomb that can threaten Israel, Iraq, or the United States.
The new Iraq’s paleolithic neighbors also wish it would go away. Well apart from issues of competing oil supplies and pricing, the Saudis probably will find the new government far worse than Saddam Hussein’s thugocracy. The latter, like elements of the royal family itself, helped subsidize killers on the West Bank. And Saddam in turn owed his survival in 1991 in part to Saudi pressures on the first Bush administration to forego a march on Baghdad, and thus let Kurdish and Shiite insurrectionists die in the street.
With Saddam in power, there was always the ostensible need for American troops in the kingdom; they were de facto sponsors of a corrupt elite and, in a larger sense, hostages of sorts to ensure the unquestioned continuation of the traditional Saudi-American “friendship.” Compared to Saddam’s murderous fascist regime, the Saudis’ medieval monarchy was sold to us by the oil lobby as a “moderate voice.” But in contrast to an emerging neighboring democracy across the border, Saudi Wahhabi theocracy might soon begin to appear downright repulsive. Who knows what might happen should the Iraq experiment succeed and Arabs flock to Iraqi universities, malls, and tourist sites — and then return home wondering why commensurate freedoms and affluence are not found there? If I were one of the corrupt grandees of the Arab League, I would empty my capital of as many fanatics and crazed killers as possible and with dispatch export them all to Iraq, to nip all that nonsense in the bud.
Syria and its Lebanese clients, along with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, all share the same concerns. Some did lucrative business with the monster on their borders on terms that they might not have been able to manage with a noisy and independent Iraqi parliament, worried more about national than about familial interests. At times these illegitimate regimes were also dubbed moderate, or even “partners,” by our State Department — only by virtue of not being as lunatic as Saddam’s Iraq. But with an ongoing revolution in Baghdad that could result in the most tolerant society in the Middle East, we might demand a little more from kings, dictators, and gangsters than the promise that they don’t kill Americans overtly.
Others are right that Egypt has the most to lose. For two decades we have sent the Mubarak dictatorship billions in U.S. aid, and have received very little in return. Their promises not to invade Israel, and not to send overt aid to West Bank terrorists, didn’t mean much; they would have lost handily anyway had they chosen war — and still always found ways to support radicals opposed to Middle East peace. The only surprise about September 11 was not the presence of the Egyptian Mohamed Atta in the lead plane, or plentiful Egyptian psychopaths in the court of bin Laden — all that was predictable to any who read the Cairo papers or monitored the hatred of its intellectuals and clerics — but rather that they were actually outnumbered by our other “friends,”‘ the Saudis.
Little needs be said about the U.N. After its decade-long impotence where it came to disarming Saddam, and the circus last winter concerning the American invasion of Iraq, its officials will now have no interest in seeing the United States create a just society when they themselves could not. Indeed, many U.N. members probably preferred the old regime anyway. That allegation is not bombast or a slur — given the prominence of Syria in U.N. deliberations, and the elevation of Iran and Libya on key committees.
The U.N. has simply ceased to be the liberal, Western-inspired utopian body that arose from the ashes of World War II with the promise that reasonable, civilized nations could adjudicate differences rather than killing each other over perceived grievances. Instead, it is a mobocracy, where majority votes reflect a passive-aggressive stance toward the United States — guiltily desiring our money and support, while still eager for a televised forum in high-profile New York to pose and showcase its cheap, easy defiance of America.
Europe is a more interesting story. Ostensibly, France and Germany would appreciate the demise of a monster, flush with petroleum-fed dollars and guilty of a history of acquiring dangerous weapons that in a few years could reach them before us. But while Europeans complain publicly that they are being asked to help clean up after we do the fighting, none, in fact, would prefer to switch roles.
Even aside from the question of whether France and Germany had lucrative commercial arrangements with the Hussein regime, those countries invested their prestige in stymieing the United States by way of the United Nations. It was thus depressing enough for them that the war ended in three weeks; that chagrin could only get worse should postbellum Iraq emerge as a sane and humane society.
In more fundamental terms, how can pacifists and socialists believe that war might rout evil and offer hope to millions of oppressed? How might unilateralism achieve what internationalism could not? How could crass, naïve Yankees barrel and bluster into the complexities of the Middle East to solve problems sophisticated, nuanced Europeans had struggled with for centuries?
In short, our failure is essential to confirming the entire European view of how the world should work. Expecting French support would be the equivalent of asking them to admit that investment in American-style air-conditioners was necessary not merely for their dead, but for the living as well — or that those lengthy August retreats to the beach and mountains while their parents and grandparents fried was an indictment of their entire socialist paradise. Who could think that the same type of individual responsibility for which they caricature us is sorely needed, in an amoral country where the younger and hale expect the state to do for the old and unwanted what they themselves will not? I have been to dozens of American hospitals in August in the scorching San Joaquin Valley heat, but never to one that was empty of nurses and doctors. And when it hits 110 in supposedly provincial Fresno, 10,000 Valley residents — poor or rich, young or old, citizen or alien — do not die.
Here at home, Democratic contenders for the presidency are an increasingly shrill lot. After listening to Messrs. Kerry, Dean, or Graham, we would never glean that the war had gone well, that the Iraqis were liberated, and that things are looking up. Instead, accusations of quagmire and near-disaster comprise the standard stump speeches. Some allege that too many Americans and too much money is committed to Baghdad. Other rivals swear that we need more soldiers and investment — the common theme being only that whatever the official position of the administration is, it must be wrong.
Aside from the acute embarrassment that will arise should textual or material evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and of Saddamite ties with al Qaeda, soon appear (and they will) — or should Iraqis begin to craft a consensual society — the Democratic elite increasingly run the risk of having it appear to the American people that they thrive on bad news and sputter on good. What else can we conclude when Howard Dean crisscrosses the country with shrill cries of “Who of our sons and daughters will be the next to die in Iraq?” and promises to enlist as his vice-presidential candidate General Clark, who was last prominent as a CNN commentator promulgating doom and gloom even as American tanks raced through Baghdad in the screen behind him? Had the horror of September 11 occurred in 2003 rather than 2001, just imagine what the reaction to it might have been by the current crop of presidential hopefuls.
All this hysteria and unrest should come as no surprise given the ambition of our endeavor, which is no less than a war of civilization to end both terrorism and the culture and politics that foster it. Still, let us ignore the self-interest of contemporary parties and reflect on the very scope of American audacity. In little more than three weeks, and coming on the heels of an amazing victory in Afghanistan, the American military defeated the worst fascist in the Middle East. Surrounded by enemies, and forced simultaneously to conduct the war against terrorism in dozens of countries and restore calm on the West Bank, the United States nevertheless sought to create consensual government and order under legal auspices in weeks — rather than the decades that were necessary in Japan and Germany, where elections took years and soldiers remain posted still. The real story is not that the news from Iraq is sometimes discouraging and depressing, but that it so often not — and that after two major-theater wars we have lost fewer people than on that disastrous day in Beirut 20 years ago, and less than 10 percent of the number that perished on September 11.
It is no wonder that we have almost no explicit voices of support. Most nations and institutions will see themselves as losers should we succeed. And the array of politicians, opportunists, and hedging pundits find pessimism and demoralization the safer gambit than disinterested reporting or even optimism — given the sheer scope of the challenge of transforming Afghanistan and Iraq from terrorist enclaves and rogue regimes into liberal and humane states.
Yet if most Americans will retain their composure, reexamine the events of the last two years, remember the horror of September 11, and appraise the myriad of problems that faced us in Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as in Europe, the Arab world, at the U.N. — and the hysteria and false knowledge here at home, they will look at our present situation and past accomplishment, and rightly sigh: “I can’t believe that we really did it.”
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson