Myth or Reality?

Will Iraq work? That’s up to us.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Myth #1: America turned off its allies.

According to John Kerry, due to inept American diplomacy and unilateral arrogance, the United States failed to get the Europeans and the U.N. on board for the war in Iraq. Thus, unlike in Afghanistan, we find ourselves alone.

In fact, there are only about 4,500-5,500 NATO troops in Afghanistan right now. The United States and its Anglo allies routed the Taliban by themselves. NATO contingents in Afghanistan are not commensurate with either the size or the wealth of Europe.

There are far more Coalition troops in Iraq presently than in Afghanistan. As in the Balkans, NATO and EU troops will arrive only when the United States has achieved victory and provided security. The same goes for the U.N., which did nothing in Serbia and Rwanda, but watched thousands being butchered under its nose. It fled from Iraq after its first losses.

Yes, the U.N. will return to Iraq — but only when the United States defeats the insurrectionists. It will stay away if we don’t. American victory or defeat, as has been true from Korea to the Balkans, will alone determine the degree of (usually post-bellum) participation of others.

Myth #2: Democracy cannot be implemented by force.

This is a very popular canard now. The myth is often floated by Middle Eastern intellectuals and American leftists — precisely those who for a half-century damned the United States for its support of anti-Communist authoritarians.

Now that their dreams of strong U.S. advocacy for consensual government have been realized, they are panicking at that sudden nightmare — terrified that their fides, their careers, indeed their entire boutique personas might be endangered by finding themselves on the same side of history as the United States. Worse, history really does suggest that democracy often follows only from force or its threat.

One does not have to go back to ancient Athens — in 507 or 403 B.C. — to grasp the depressing fact that most authoritarians do not surrender power voluntarily. There would be no democracy today in Japan, South Korea, Italy, or Germany without the Americans’ defeat of fascists and Communists. Democracies in France and most of Western Europe were born from Anglo-American liberation; European resistance to German occupation was an utter failure. Panama, Granada, Serbia, and Afghanistan would have had no chance of a future without the intervention of American troops.

All of Eastern Europe is free today only because of American deterrence and decades of military opposition to Communism. Very rarely in the modern age do democratic reforms emerge spontaneously and indigenously (ask the North Koreans, Cubans, or North Vietnamese). Tragically, positive change almost always appears after a war in which authoritarians lose or are discredited (Argentina or Greece), bow to economic or cultural coercion (South Africa), or are forced to hold elections (Nicaragua).

Myth #3: Lies got us into this war.

Did the administration really mislead us about the reasons to go to war, and does it really now find itself with an immoral conflict on its hands? Mr. Bush’s lectures about WMD, while perhaps privileging such fears over more pressing practical and humanitarian reasons to remove Saddam Hussein, took their cue from prior warnings from Bill Clinton, senators of both parties including John Kerry, and both the EU and U.N.

If anyone goes back to read justifications for Desert Fox (December 1998) or those issued right after September 11 by an array of American politicians, then it is clear that Mr. Bush simply repeated the usual Western litany of about a decade or so — most of it best formulated by the Democratic party under Bill Clinton. Indeed, we opted to launch that campaign in large part because of Iraq’s work on WMDs.

No, the real rub is whether Iraq will work: If it does, the WMD bogeyman disappears; if not, it becomes the surrogate issue to justify withdrawing.

Myth #4: Profit-making led to this war.

Then there is the strange idea that American administration officials profited from the war. Companies like Bechtel and Halliburton are supposedly “cashing in,” either on oil contracts or rebuilding projects — as if any company is lining up to lure thousands of workers to the Iraqi oasis to lounge and cheat in such a paradise.

This idea is absurd for a variety of other reasons, too. Iraqi oil is for the first time under Iraqi, rather than a dictator’s, control. And the Iraqi people most certainly will not sign over their future oil reserves to greedy companies in the manner that Saddam gave French consortia almost criminally profitable contracts. Indeed, no Iraqi politician is going to demand to pump more oil to lower gas prices in the country that freed him. Some imperialism.

All U.S. construction is subject to open audit and assessment. A zealous media has not yet found any signs of endemic or secret corruption. There really is a giant scandal surrounding Iraq, but it involves (1) the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, in which U.N. officials and Saddam Hussein, hand-in-glove with European and Russian oil companies, robbed revenues from the Iraqi people; and (2) French petroleum interests that strong-armed a tottering dictator to sign over his country’s national treasure to Parisian profiteers under conditions that no consensual government would ever agree to. The only legitimate accusation of Iraqi profiteering does not involve Dick Cheney or Halliburton, but rather Kofi Annan’s negligence and his son Kojo’s probable malfeasance.

Myth #5: Israel has caused the United States untold headaches in the Arab world by its intransigent policies.

The refutation of this myth could take volumes, given the depth of daily misinformation. Perhaps, though, we can sum up the absurdity by looking at the nature of West Bank demonstrations over the past few months.

The issues baffle Americans: Some Arab citizens of Israel, residing in almost entirely Arab border towns and calling themselves Palestinians, were furious about Mr. Sharon’s offer to cede them sovereign Israeli soil and thus allow them to join the new Palestinian nation. Others were hysterical that two killers — who promised not merely the “liberation” of the West Bank, but also the utter destruction of Israel — were in fact killed in a war by Israelis. Both of the deceased had damned the United States and expressed support for Islamicists now killing our soldiers in Iraq — even as their supporters whined that we did not lament their recent departures to a much-praised paradise.

Elsewhere fiery demonstrators were shaking keys to houses that they have not been residing in for 60 years — furious about the forfeiture of the “right of return” and their inability to migrate to live out their lives in the hated “Zionist entry.” Notably absent were the relatives of the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, and other Arab capitals who years ago were all ethnically cleansed and sent packing from centuries-old homes, but apparently got on with what was left of their lives.

The Palestinians will, in fact, get their de facto state, though one that may be now cut off entirely from Israeli commerce and cultural intercourse. This is an apparently terrifying thought: Palestinian men can no longer blow up Jews on Monday, seek dialysis from them on Tuesday, get an Israeli paycheck on Wednesday, demonstrate to CNN cameras about the injustice of it all on Thursday — and then go back to tunneling under Gaza and three-hour, all-male, conspiracy-mongering sessions in coffee-houses on Friday. Beware of getting what you bomb for.

Perhaps the absurdity of the politics of the Middle East is best summed up by the recent visit of King Abdullah of Jordan, a sober and judicious autocrat, or so we are told. As the monarch of an authoritarian state, recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual American aid, son of a king who backed Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, and a leader terrified that the Israeli fence might encourage Palestinian immigration into his own Arab kingdom, one might have thought that he could spare us the moral lectures at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club — especially when his elite Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers were just about to murder American citizens in Kosovo while terrorists in his country tried to mass murder Americans with gas.

Instead we got the broken-record Middle East sermon on why Arabs don’t like Americans — as if we had forgotten 9/11 and its quarter-century-long precursors. Does this sensible autocrat — perhaps the most reasonable man in the region — ever ask himself about questions of symmetry and reciprocity?

Is there anything like a Commonwealth Club in Amman? And if not, why not? And could a Mr. Blair or Mr. Bush in safety and freedom visit Amman to hold a public press conference, much less to lecture his Jordanian hosts on why Americans in general — given state-sponsored terrorism, Islamic extremism, and failed Middle Eastern regimes — have developed such unfavorable attitudes towards so many Arab societies?

What then is the truth of this so-often-caricatured war?

On the bright side, there has not been another 9/11 mass-murder. And this is due entirely to our increased vigilance, the latitude given our security people by the hated Patriot Act, and the idea that the war (not a DA’s inquiry) should be fought abroad not at home.

The Taliban was routed and Afghanistan has the brightest hopes in thirty years. Pakistan, so unlike 1998, is not engaged in breakneck nuclear proliferation abroad. Libya claims a new departure from its recent past. Syria fears a nascent dissident movement. Saddam is gone. Iran is hysterical about new scrutiny. American troops are out of Saudi Arabia.

True, we are facing various groups jockeying for power in a new Iraq; and the country is still unsettled. Yet millions of Kurds are satisfied and pro-American. Millions more Shiites want political power — and think that they can get it constitutionally through us rather than out of the barrel of a gun following an unhinged thug. After all, any fool who names his troops “Mahdists” is sorely misinformed about the fate of the final resting place of the Great Mahdi, the couplets of Hilaire Beloc, and what happened to thousands of Mahdist zealots at Omdurman.

So, we can either press ahead in the face of occasionally bad news from Iraq (though it will never be of the magnitude that once came from Sugar Loaf Hill or the icy plains near the Yalu that did not faze a prior generation’s resolve) — or we can withdraw. Then watch the entire three-year process of real improvement start to accelerate in reverse. If after 1975 we thought that over a million dead in Cambodia, another million on rickety boats fleeing Vietnam, another half-million sent to camps or executed, hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in America, a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an Iranian take-over of the U.S. embassy, oil-embargos, Communist entry into Central America, a quarter-century of continual terrorist attacks, and national invective were bad, just watch the new world emerge when Saddam’s Mafioso or Mr. Sadr’s Mahdists force our departure.

This war was always a gamble, but not for the reasons many Americans think. We easily had, as proved, the military power to defeat Saddam; we embraced the idealism and humanity to eschew realpolitik and offer something different in the place of mass murder. And we are winning on all fronts at a cost that by any historical measure has confirmed both our skill and resolve.

But the lingering question — one that has never been answered — was always our attention and will. The administration assumed that in occasional times of the inevitable bad news, we were now more like the generation that endured the surprise of Okinawa and Pusan rather than Tet and Mogadishu. All were bloody fights; all were similarly controversial and unexpected; all were alike proof of the fighting excellence of the American soldiers — but not all were seen as such by Americans. The former were detours on the road to victory and eventual democracy; the latter led to self-recrimination, defeat, and chaos in our wake.

The choice between myth and reality is ours once more.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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