Mr. Bush’s Communication Problem

It’s not him; it’s what he’s supposed to be communicating.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Just when former supporters of the Iraq invasion and the wider so-called war against terror are proclaiming doom and gloom, other commentators conclude that we have already defeated the jihadists! Nostalgia even abounds about returning to the 1990s, when the United States occasionally swatted bothersome terrorists with cruise missiles and indictments.

This unbalance in the media reflects — or has helped cause — a public unhappiness over Iraq that has brought the president’s poll ratings to less than 40-percent approval. Yet again, for all the efforts of the Left to demonize Mr. Bush as either incompetent or diabolical — or both — the American people hardly think we have lost — or won — the war, much less that the threat posed by Iraq, or the necessity of fighting Islamists abroad, was trumped up in Crawford, Texas.

The Germans (no supporters of the United States in Iraq) and the British recently were a bomb or two away from catastrophe. The jihadists won’t stop after such failure, nor can they be appeased by Spanish-style concessions. One successful strike will make those who proclaim that we aren’t any longer really in a war appear unhinged.

Only a reincarnated Chamberlain or Daladier could think that there is no Islamist commonality between the recent hostage-taking of Western telejournalists on the West Bank, Iranian threats to extinguish Israel and end the American presence in the Gulf, terrorist attacks on soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, plans of killing thousands in Britain and Germany, or plots to blow up American airliners in London — as if Japanese fascists, Italian fascists, and German fascists could not have made war in unison against the liberal democracies given their differing agendas and sects, and lack of coordination.

And even when the Islamists do not succeed, their threats and rhetoric cripple the West: when Mr. Ahmadinejihad rants about wiping Israel off the face of the map or sending gunboats into the Gulf, he garners a few billion extra in annual petrodollars due to the frenzy of oil speculators. A few foiled terrorists in London still managed to force millions of people into humiliating searches of their carry-on luggage, and cost the West untold millions in lost flights, delays, and inconvenience.

In fact, the current strategy of having removed the two most odious dictatorships — the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s — and fostering democracies in their places remains the only sensible course. Far from winning this war for the future of the Middle East, Syria, and Iran are increasingly isolated, desperate to thwart democratization that surrounds their borders in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, and facing world sanctions for their roguery. For all its messiness, the promotion of democratic reform infuriates the Islamists and paid-off Arab journalists and intellectual toadies alike, and ultimately works in our favor.

But right now the real problem has been the necessity of reversing the order of traditional postwar democratization. The old calculus was first the proverbial horse of defeating and vanquishing utterly the enemy; then the cart of showing magnanimity in rebuilding the country of a contrite loser. Only in that order would the Americans be willing to give millions to the former supporters of once murderous Nazis, Italian fascists, or imperial Japanese who had killed and maimed their sons.

In the Middle East, we reversed the sequence, on the idealistic — and I think correct — premise that the Afghan and Iraqi people were captive to their dictators, and that we wished to avoid an all-encompassing conflict along the lines of World War II. In other words, we trusted that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein explained the recent savagery of the Afghans and Iraqis, rather than the innate savagery of the Afghans and Iraqis themselves explaining the creation of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The result of this confidence, despite the carnage of war, was that democracy was ushered in, the rogues were to be kept out, and peace was supposed to follow from a grateful, liberated people.

But why should it, when the hard hand of American war was not first completely felt — nor the jihadists utterly vanquished and discredited and any who supported them? Unless there is some element of fear, or at least the suggestion of consequences to come for recalcitrance, why should an Iraqi cease his easy support of Hezbollah, his anti-Semitism, or his cheap support for Islamist terrorists around the block? It would be as if we expected to end slavery outright in the Confederacy around 1862, or rid Germany of Nazis around 1943, or persuade the Japanese fascists to vote in 1944 — before such ideologies have been utterly defeated and the steep price for those who tolerated them paid in full.

So what Mr. Bush is faced with is this nearly impossible paradox of half war/half peace: at a time when most are getting fed up with abhorrent Middle Eastern jihadists who blow up, hijack, and behead in the name of their religion, he is attempting to convince the same American public and the Western world at large to spend their blood and treasure to help Muslim Afghans, Iraqis, and now Lebanese, who heretofore — whether out of shared anti-Americanism or psychological satisfaction in seeing the overdog take a hit — have not been much eager to separate themselves from the rhetoric of radical Islam.

In any case, the administration’s problem is not really its (sound) strategy, nor its increasingly improved implementation that we see in Baghdad, but simply an American public that so far understandably cannot easily differentiate millions of brave Iraqis and Afghans, who risk their lives daily to hunt terrorists and ensure reform, from the Islamists of the Muslim Street who broadcast their primordial hatred for Israel and the United States incessantly.

Remember the surreal Middle East: we freed Shiites from Saddam; so Shiite Iran in response tries to destroy Shiite democrats in Iraq, who, being constantly attacked by terrorists and militias, in turn sympathize with anti-democratic Hezbollah terrorists and militias in Lebanon. And at one point last month, the Lebanese, between slurs against America, were expecting the United States to send it cash, retrieve expatriates immediately, restrain Israel, do something about Hezbollah, and praise Lebanese critics — and all at once.

So how can one expect Americans to witness the barbarism of the jihadists, the creepy rhetoric of the imams and mullahs, the triangulation of Arab governments, and the puerility of the Muslim Street, pause, take a deep breath, and sigh, “Ah, they are frustrated because they are unfree and poor, and so in error blame us for their own autocracies’ failures. Therefore, we must be generous in our sacrifices to allow them the same opportunities for freedom that we enjoy.”

That contemplation and forbearance are both too complex and too much to ask of a post-September 11 public, and so end up as a piñata for political opportunists on both sides to smack to shreds.

On the Right the politicking works out with cynicism and disgust: “These ungrateful and hateful people aren’t worth the life of another American soldier or American dollar.”

Yet the Bush idealism wins no points from the Left either. Both for partisan purposes, and due to the wages of multiculturalism that oppose any Western effort to bring to the other the good life that they themselves so eagerly embrace, Leftists still harp about no blood for oil and assorted conspiracies in lieu of legitimate analysis and criticism.

What, then, is needed — aside from crushing the jihadists and securing Afghanistan and Iraq — is more articulation and explanation. The word “liberal” — as in promoting liberal values abroad, and reminding the world of the traditions of liberal tolerance — needs to be employed more often.

Some tough language is also helpful on occasion: any time the free democracies of Iraq or Afghanistan wish to vote to send American troops home, of course we will comply. Likewise, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon are under no compulsion to accept hated American aid or military help. And just as the American public needs reminding that millions of Middle Easterners are currently fighting jihadist terror in Afghanistan and Iraq — we wish we could say the same about our “allies” in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — so too the Iraqi and Afghan governments should convey to the American people that their support is appreciated, and its continuance deemed vital.

How odd that the president must explain the pathologies of the Middle East to such a degree as to warn Americans of our mortal danger, but not to the point of excess so that we feel that there is no hope for such people. He must somehow suggest that jihadism could not imperil us were it not for the “moderates” who tolerate and appease it — while this is the very same group that we feel duty-bound to offer an alternative other than theocracy or dictatorship. And he must offer a postwar plan of reconstruction to the citizens of the Middle East at a time when many of them do not feel that their romantic jihadists have ever really been defeated at all.

Even the eloquence of a Lincoln or Churchill would find all that difficult.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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