Our Rock of Sisyphus

How goes our hard labor in Iraq?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Where does the United States stand in its so-called global war against terror, four years after the September 11 attack? The news is both encouraging and depressing all at once.

The Home Front

On the plus side, we have not seen another attack on our shores. No one is quite sure why, but there has at least been a radical change in Americans’ attitude about tolerance for Islamic extremism. It is generally felt that the populace has become a collective powder keg ready to go off at the next attack. And perhaps that fear has awed and silenced radical imams and their hate-filled madrassas — for a while at least.

Hundreds of terrorists and their sympathizers, from Lodi and Portland to New Jersey and Florida, have been arrested or deported for either planning attacks or seeking to spread their venom. Nevertheless, our borders, especially with Mexico, are porous. It is a parlor game now among pundits to speculate how easily a Middle Eastern terrorist could come northward without much worry of interdiction.

American immigration policy is nebulous: why do we still let in almost anyone from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia. or any of the other Middle Eastern autocracies that are known for laxity toward their anti-American terrorists? If we really were in either a hot or even a cold war, then we should have adopted a policy similar to the past restrictions on German nationals entering in 1941-5 or on those from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1950s through the 1970s.

A more serious lapse is the absence of a radical energy policy that forces greater production and conservation. Our present dependence is analogous to America needing German coal in 1936 or counting on the Ploesti oilfields of Romania of 1933 to run our Model As.

True, the administration has good grounds to be wary: earlier expensive efforts to subsidize alternative fuels proved boondoggles when OPEC turned on the spigots and recessions cut demand. And it is not clear that the Left would tolerate new drilling off our coasts and in Alaska, or more nuclear power as a trade-off for stepped-up mandatory conservation.

But three points are missed here, aside from the entrance of oil-hungry India and China into the world market and the steady depletion of known reserves, that have made things far different from 30 years ago.

First, enemies like Iran and triangulators such as Saudi Arabia are increasingly immune from American political pressure, not just because we are dependent on imported petroleum, but also because an energy-sensitive world will blame the United States for any action that endangers a now-fragile global market.

Second, in the past 24 months hundreds of billions of dollars in windfall profits have been propping up the Iranian theocracy and have bailed out Saudi Arabia, which by 2000 was facing a real need for structural and political reforms.

Third, some of that new petro-money will find its way to al Qaeda and Hezbollah to hire ever more mercenaries to attack us in Iraq or at home. We are fighting a culture in radical Islam that cannot make or earn anything. It is entirely parasitic, counting only on stealthy petro-handouts from terrified regimes, which themselves create no capital of their own other than by maintaining oil production that others crafted and, for a price, mostly still operate and maintain.


A majority of Americans have tired of Iraq. Reasoned reflection would suggest that the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and their replacement by constitutional governments — at a tragic cost of two-thirds of those civilians lost on the first day of the war — might instead have come as mostly positive news, especially given antebellum warnings of thousands of our dead and millions of refugees to come in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Two-thirds of Al Qaeda are scattered. Bin Laden’s popularity is waning, as it always does in the Middle East when former romantic killers remain incognito, cannot come out of hiding, and resort to issuing stale videos. It is hard to account for the end of Libyan and Pakistani nuclear trafficking, of Syrians in Lebanon, or of unquestioned dictatorship in Egypt, without the prior American resolve to remove Saddam.

Whether we like it or not, consistency with the democraticizing efforts in Iraq has gained a life of its own and will force us gradually to distance ourselves even more from autocracies throughout the Middle East. That in turn will both rekindle their establishment’s short-term hatred and yet at the same time weaken Arab strongmen’s long-term efforts to deflect popular anguish against us via terrorist intermediaries.

Oddly, the successful prevention of another 9/11, coupled with the amazing military victories over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, may have prompted a sense of laxity in the public, which apparently detects no evidence of a dangerous war that still threatens our very existence at home.

Mistakes, some fundamental, were made in Iraq; but given earlier long (and still ongoing) postwar presences in Germany, Japan, Italy, the Balkans, and Korea, Americans might have been able to appreciate that we have been in Iraq for far less time, and had lost far fewer troops than in past conflicts (except, of course, in the air campaign against Milosevic). Instead, World War II is ineptly raised as the benchmark of our “quagmire,” since from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki is no longer a span than September 11 to the present — as if 2,000 lost is comparable to 400,000 Americans or 50 million worldwide and the near destruction of the European continent.

Hysteria surrounding non-news (like flushed Korans and the Cindy Sheehan carnival) seems to suggest that a non-attentive public is not worried about being gassed or nuked or even terrorists killing thousands of Americans abroad. Fewer still appreciate that the brave 2,000 Americans lost in Iraq were responsible for killing tens of thousands of deadly terrorists and insurgents. In a rare showing of idealism, American soldiers alone were the catalysts for a reform government in the most dangerous region of the Arab world, that also alone offers the only chance to end the old non-choice between dictators or theocrats.

There are other disappointments. In an iconic war, the symbols of radical Islam fighting against the United States — bin Laden, Dr. Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, Zarqawi — are all loose to inspire our enemies with mythologies of American impotence. Iran and Syria, unlike in the spring of 2003, are convinced that their efforts at subverting Iraq will either pay off with a perpetually crippled neighbor, or at least cause so much chaos that the tired American public would never support retaliation against either Teheran or Damascus for their support of terrorism. And they are absolutely right in their calculations — unless Iraq stabilizes soon and Americans can see a radically different government in a secure country as the dividend of their sacrifices.

The Politics of the War

Abroad anti-Americanism is on the wane, for a variety of natural reasons, and some very smart efforts on our part. While critics screamed hegemony, we withdrew troops from South Korea, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, with promises of more withdrawals to come elsewhere. That prompted reflection on the part of noisy allies who formerly wanted it both ways, and reminded the world we don’t enjoy the United States playing global policeman any better than it does. Such responsibility is not easy, as the frustrated Europeans are learning with their humiliating nuclear negotiations with the Iranians.

The EU dream is fading as the union is devolving to a logical trading organization and loose political alliance rather than a utopian pan-government. Desperate socialists and statist are no less anti-American, but now they must offer up something other than the Pavlovian kicks to the United States — such as explaining why at peace they have worse unemployment, economic growth and racial relations than does America at war.

Third, the bombings in London and Madrid proved sobering to old Europe. So has the pro-American stance of most of Eastern Europe, the UK and Australia, and India and Japan — all seeking leadership from the United States on everything from an ascendant China to radical Islam.

A nose-wrinkling Germany, France, and South Korea have almost talked themselves into military isolation at a time when the world is growing far more unpredictable. While they all boast of their anti-Americanism, they are clueless about the most radical shift in American public opinion in recent history: quite literally, many, if not most, Americans simply don’t wish to have much formal ties with either Paris, Berlin, or Seoul, considering them hardly allies or even friends, but sneering neutrals at best. While these three still ankle-bite, the remnants of the old friendships continue to vanish.

At home the Democrats are in a quandary. Most supported the war, at least if their votes on an October 2002 Senate resolution are any indication. Timetables for withdrawal and financial cut-offs don’t make any sense if we are, in fact, on the verge of success and will see a new Iraq take over its own security.

The anti-war crowd brought no traction in two national elections. The Cindy Sheehan phenomenon — like Michael Moore, George Soros, and moveon.org — is too loose a cannon for anything other than occasionally useful loud wild salvos that can be disclaimed when they crudely miss.

So the strategy remains one of attrition: everything from a fabricated Newsweek story on Guantanamo to Hurricane Katrina (against the backdrop of the media gloom and doom on Iraq and blackout of continual progress) brings one or two polling points a month in advantage. A John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, Al Gore, and others will play down American success, grimace and groan — but not go the McGovern route until it is absolutely clear the American people are convinced that we cannot win and thus want out, no conditions asked.

The Next Year

If on September 12, Americans could have been asked whether they were willing to make the sacrifices we have already tragically incurred to achieve the end of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein , the democratic stirrings in the Middle East, and the avoidance of another September 11, most would have reluctantly done so.

But after two-and-a-half years of televised beheadings, suicide bombers, and improvised explosive devices, most would now not. Two elections and four years later the country is polarized in the manner of 1864 or 1968.

Former advocates of the war employ the trite “I supported my successful war, but not your messy reconstruction.” Detractors, who were quiet in the victories over the Taliban and Saddam, now boom out they were never for the use of force at all.

Many on the Right assure that we blew it by not waging full-scale war, convinced that our half-measures lost support for further incursions elsewhere — but without a clue how to convince a skeptical 60 percent of the public that we need more, not less, fighting in the Middle East.

The responsible Left offers nothing other than what George Bush is already doing — more training of Iraqis, more pressure on regional autocracies, and building bridges with allies. The lunatic leftist fringe utterly turns most off since they come across not so much anti-war as anti-American.

Where does this leave us four years later?

Not in as bad a situation as most would argue. If the trends of the last month — more Iraqi participation, constitutional discussions, fewer attacks on Americans, Iraqi predictions of fewer U.S. troops needed — hold steady, then the public will grudgingly restore their support, the Middle East really will be forever altered, and the anti-war left will retreat to lick its wounds. The administration can tell the gung-ho right it prevailed while avoiding deploying several hundreds of thousands of troops in the Middle East and sapping its entire war-making potential — while a restive China of a billion people scares far more than radical Islam.

As always the pulse of the battlefield determines political perceptions. Just as some hard-core neo-cons who once wrote President Clinton to take out Saddam Hussein now swear that the Iraqi war was someone else’s colossal mistake, so too they will reclaim its democracy as their own if we prevail.

But right now all this is in the hands of a brilliant U.S. military that must stabilize Iraq, train a viable military, ward off foreign intruders — and do that without losing very many more soldiers and in very little time. An impossible task for any other military — but just possible for ours.

So I think we will accomplish all that, as we have pushed the rock almost to the summit. But it is heavier than ever and one or two more of our stumbles and it could come crashing back — just as it was ready to roll over the top and cascade down the other side.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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