Questions on “Why We Must Stay in Iraq”

Transcript from on online chat with VDH in “Outlook”

Washington Post

Knoxville, Tenn.: The Middle East already has a democracy, its called Turkey, which shares borders with Syria and Iran. Arabs also have full access to U.S./European democracy thanks to satellite T.V. like Al Jazeera etc. What is so special about the paper democracy being created in Iraq?

Victor Davis Hanson: Questions like these are emblematic of the problem in even discussing Iraq — what is so special. Turkey is a long U.S. ally, member of NATO, and a post-Attaturk society. Iraq is Arabic, replete with a terrible history of oppression, a former U.S. and Western enemy, and under the sway of Islamic Wahhabis, who are no longer bribed off by Saddam. So it is an enormous risk, and undertaking, and it has the potential to change the entire debate on the Middle East and improve the lives of millions, as we see from the reform going on in Egypt, the Gulf, and Lebanon

Madison, Ind.: With so many wise, informed experts drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, why do you believe otherwise?

Victor Davis Hanson: I suppose because I look at situation empirically and don’t really care whether Bush or Clinton or their successors are involved. Iraq is supposedly what the 1960’s called for — principle in U.S. foreign policy of supporting democratic reform rather than the old order and autocracy. And as I look at Vietnam in the last 30 years, the millions of boat people, incarcerated, the Cambodia holocaust, and systematic oppression, I see our loss there not as inevitable but as an unfortunate product of the tragic events of 1974-5 when we left after stabilizing the south.

Washington, D.C.: As a graduate student in history at the American University here in Washington, D.C., I wonder how you as a historian can rationalize your methodology which argues that Iraq is not analogous to Vietnam? How can you premise your entire argument for American involvement in Iraq on lies: Lies of weapons of mass destruction, and lies of links to Al Qaeda? Just as our involvement in Vietnam was based on the failed paradigm of the “Domino Theory,” our involvement in Iraq is based on a failed oil based Middle East policy dating back to 1950’s and the ouster of Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq by the CIA. The United States and this administration has abused its power, and it is showing in the streets of New Orleans.

Victor Davis Hanson: Let me address “lies” for a second. To believe that the U.S. deliberately lied about WMD rather than mistakenly privileged that casus belli over the other 27 writs for war passed by the U.S. Senate, one would have to believe that the Clinton administration and most Democratic senators were lying all during the 1990’s and during the debate over their war resolution in October 2002, that European intelligence was lying, that Arab governments who warned about tactical use of WMD were lying, and that U.S. commanders in the field who ordered their soldiers to wear protective gear in unbearable heat were part of the lie as well as was their own independent military intelligence. So no, I think it is peril to keep chanting “lies” and leads nowhere. It reminds me of what they said about Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and supposedly introduced a new reason for the war other than saving the Union.

Toronto, Canada: If the Bush regime cannot handle the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina what reason is there to suppose that they know what they are doing in Iraq?

Victor Davis Hanson: You tip your hand by the use of “regime” to refer to an elected government. You seek perfection and thus give no exemption to human frailty and thus think we cannot be good. Katrina was the worst natural disaster in our history; the Mayor did not order an evacuation when asked to by the federal government, the Governor is paralyzed into inaction. And yet, the federal government is finally mobilizing, but given a storm, levee break, and a corrupt state political culture it is difficult. As far as Iraq — we have made several mistakes from not securing the borders, to Paul Bremmer’s too frequent public exposure, to disbanding the army, and on and on. And yet what startles is that here we are with a constitutional debate, Saddam scheduled for a judicial trial not a firing squad, and millions of voters in Iraq of all places. If you read what Arab newspapers are saying about the U.S., it is not anymore than we support corrupt dictators nor are intellectuals berating us for cynicism, but now it is our misplaced idealism and naiveté that riles them — and that itself says quite a lot.

Harrisburg, Pa.: People in Iraq and throughout what used to be Arabia have a long history of resisting the intervention of military forces from foreign nations. Wouldn’t we be better, as a general strategy, spreading democracy and mutual understanding better through economic development assistance, trade, and diplomacy than attempting to force it through military occupation?

Victor Davis Hanson: In an ideal world, yes. But after the 1991 Gulf War, 11 years of occupying his air space, four attacks on regional neighbors, genocide, and legitimate worries over his past record of doing everything from harboring the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Abu Abbas, Abu Nidal, providing shelter for Afghan terrorists like Zarqawi, and sending Iraq intelligence agents to promote terrorism, the decision was made to remove him, and second, not to leave as in the past, but do the dirty work of staying on, reconstructing the country and trying to offer a real chance at freedom. I note I was not in favor of the 1998 letter to President Clinton by some asking for Saddam’s removal. I supported the war only in the context of a post-September 11 world.

Arlington, Va.: Good Morning. I enjoy your columns on National Review Online very much. I am wondering if you would give us your assessment of the performance of the military leadership in Iraq. Since you just brought up Lincoln, I am reminded that Lincoln repeatedly replaced his generals (McClellan, Hooker, Burnside, Meade, etc.) until he reached Grant. President Bush has been very loyal to the leaders serving under him. However, I have recently heard calls in various quarters for a shakeup in the military leadership. For example, even some of the ex-military officers who support the war and comment on it for Fox News are calling for such a shakeup. What are your thoughts?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, if you look carefully, there have been shakeups from our original proconsul Garner to a number of high-ranking generals who were reassigned. But in World War II, we in fact rarely removed generals, even mediocre ones like Mark Clark. George Marshall made horrendous blunders, so did Admiral King. But rightly so, it was felt such recriminations could wait. Lincoln never removed Halleck, his army chief of staff. Grant was not sacked after Shiloh, nor even Sherman after his crack-up. We have the right people, we have the right strategy, we are seeing results, but we need patience. Things are tipping our way, and we can see the angst and confusion in the Arab world among its dictators, from Assad to Khadafi who don’t know quite what to make of this new U.S. Examine carefully Secretary Rice’s speech in Cairo on June 20th. It was a revolutionary moment: in the middle of an American subsidized autocracy, she admitted past U.S. fault, urged change, and warned the U.S. is not going to abide with the status quo any longer. Yet few noted other than a few realists who were angry and leftist who turned her idealism into cynicism.

Washington, D.C.: Your response to the question regarding “lies” is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s calling those who disagree with the war “unpatriotic.” Please address the poster’s contention, namely, that a flawed methodology leads to flawed results, and in this case, a flawed policy. No Lincoln metaphors, please.

Victor Davis Hanson: Here we go again. I called no one unpatriotic at all. I did point out how the allegation that mistaken intelligence could hardly be deliberate lies, given the numerous foreign and domestic, friendly and hostile, states that came to the same independent conclusion. You did not read either what I wrote: there were 20 some reasons the Senate voted to authorize war with Saddam. Read what John Kerry and Hillary Clinton said on the floor of the Senate. All were legitimate. So the policy of removing a dictator with a long history of war with the U.S., attacking regional states, genocide, and state-sponsored terror was rational, not flawed in a post-September-11 world. And despite our lapses we are seeing the dividends in both the Middle East in general and inside Iraq.

Silver Spring, Md.: I agree that Iraq is not a surrogate theater of Cold War like Vietnam. However, for some of us, our lack of support for the Iraq war is that the Bush administration never provided an honest, helpful view of why Iraq should be invaded while allowing the really dangerous murderers and 8th century dreamers to continue. We have had very weak follow through in Afghanistan, have let Pakistan’s leaders lie to us and benefit by very leaky borders, and let oil rich Saudi Arabia export Islamic hatred all over the world, including Europe. I wish you could make a stronger case for squandering American lives and resources on a “humanitarian” effort in Iraq rather than really attending to a war on terror that has always seemed centered in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — never Iraq.

Victor Davis Hanson: Look. We are approaching year four in the war. No further September 11 like attacks have transpired, although that is not true of the U.K., Spain, Turkey, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda is scattered. The Taliban are gone. Public support for bin Laden is weaker and he is polling below his September 11 popularity. Pakistan’s nuclear antics are exposed. Libya’s too. Syria is out of Lebanon where elections are in process. The U.N.’s Oil-for-Food extortion is over. The Gulf is in foment as elections in Kuwait proceed. Egypt is dealing with the same dilemma. All this is dangerous and risky and costly in lives, but we are seeing the results in a safer U.S., and a world that is coming to the consensus that for all the hysteria, the U.S. really is on the right side of history. As I said, India, Japan, Russia, China do not see us as French and Germans do. And I note both Shroeder and Chirac who whipped us such anti-American hysteria are on their last legs as well. So we need patience in these dark hours, just as we could not see the end of the war during the bulge or Okinawa.

Va.: Were you or other people from the Hoover Institution in Iraq the last 2-3 years? What was your impression?

Victor Davis Hanson: Many were. I was in the West Bank and will go to North Africa this fall. Their impressions are mixed. Larry Diamond supported the war, but left Iraq in disgust after a few months. Others tell a different tale. We have a number of military fellows who are still confident. I met another officer recently at Hoover who pleaded to give the military more time, that they can feel the Iraqi security forces gaining confidence and are hitting on the right strategy of creating large zones of normality. The Sunnis — no oil, a minority population, a history of Wahhabi support that turns off the world, collaboration with Saddam — are not in a position of strength, and have few options other than voting or nihilism.

Chicago, Ill.: It is great to have all this intellectual analysis, but the reality is we are losing. You can stipulate and postulate all you want Mr. Historian, but the reality on the ground is we are losing. The reforms you cite in Egypt and Lebanon are laughable and reveal you as a partisan — there are absolutely no reforms taking place in Egypt except for the lip service the President there pays and Lebanon is as dangerous as ever. My question to you is how long will this war go on and what constitutes winning?

Victor Davis Hanson: Again, the sarcasm leads nowhere and tires. We are not losing. Two-thirds of Iraq are secure. The Sunni clerics for the first time are urging their people to vote, though to do so is in defiance of the death sentence announced by the al Qaedists. Anyone who thinks Syrians out of Lebanon, under investigation for assassination by of all people the U.N., and Egyptians writing things in newspapers impossible a few months ago is nothing is simply not looking at the facts.

Winning? Very simple. When the constitution is ratified, an Iraqi army can keep the peace, and the terrorists find no sanctuary. We are seeing such a model in Afghanistan, which we should remember was liberated 18 months before Iraq.

Vienna, Va.: In the context of 9/11, would it be even more legitimate to attack Saudi Arabia? You seemed to have some problems even with placing this very simple question not to say to address it.

Victor Davis Hanson: I don’t think so for a variety of reason, and I speak as one who in 2002 wrote a widely criticized article entitled “The Saudis, Our Enemy.”

First, we have radically cut relations back, most notably by withdrawing all 10,000 troops (something the Clinton administration never did). We are doing things already that are driving them crazy, from promoting democracy next door in Iraq, to encouraging reform in the other Gulf states, to pulling away from the Mubarak autocracy in Egypt, the center of Arab nationalism, to monitoring and dismantling Wahhabi charities, and finally to restricting visas and entry into the U.S. from Saudi Arabia. So the old corrupt calculus is ending. Can we do more? Maybe if we get an energy policy of conservation and more exploration, but even then we learn that China, India, and Europe have no scruples, far less than ours, in cozying up to the largest reserves of oil in the world.

Stewartstown, Pa.: It seems to be that a central point has been left out of discussions about Iraq. The U.S. doesn’t have a right to attack other nations and remove their leaders just because it thinks that doing so will make the world “better off.” Other nations have a right to their governments — even if those governments are nondemocratic. The U.S. — and any other country — only has a right to attack a nation that poses a clear and direct threat. Iraq was not endangering the United States. Even if Saddam had WMDs, why would he use them against the U.S.? The Soviet Union was an enemy of the U.S., and had WMDs, but didn’t use them.

Why do the rights of other nations never seem to be considered in U.S. foreign policy? If America can invade whatever nation it likes, why can’t Germany, Japan, and others do the same?

Victor Davis Hanson: You too did not read carefully my other posts. Read thecasus belli that the Senate passed. It included violations of the 1991 armistice accords, genocide, assassination attempts on a former U.S. president, links with terrorism (their writ not mine), etc. And read too the critique at the time: in October 2002 it was that Saddam did not have WMD (even the Left believed that), but that the Bush administration was using a “shot gun” approach and trying to throw too many reasons on the wall to see which would stick. The worry over WMD was not that he would attack the U.S. with Iraqi forces but twofold: 1) he had used them in the modern age, so had no moral qualms, 2) he was a host to terrorists, among them one who had tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993.

Chantilly, Va.: Dr. Hanson, I appreciated your article in The Post although I was quite surprised to see The Post actually publish one of your articles. One of your themes is that a democratic led people who choose to take action are a formidable fighting force. Your recount of Alexander’s army retreating across the know world and surviving comes to mind. Do you believe that the Iraqis have it in them to develop the means for that kind of tenacity in the face of adversity?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, if we stay on and help them. They are already improving, and almost the only Arabs in the Middle East daily risking their lives to kill al Qaeda terrorists to preserve democracy. Their only fear is that the U.S., Vietnam-like, will leave, and their fragile institutions will be no match for hard cadres of killers, who are emissaries of states who want Iraq to fail. I’m not naive; it won’t be New England. But Kurdistan shows neither Islam nor the Middle East is incompatible with freedom.

Arlington, Va.: I agree that we need to stay in Iraq until the job is done. The stakes are enormous. The reason was stated by Mr Paul Wolfowitz in an address to delegates at an Asian security summit in Singapore (comparing North Korea to Iraq).

“Let’s look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.”

Don’t you agree?

Victor Davis Hanson: Not entirely. If we speak of realism only: North Korea may have nukes; no one thought Saddam had and thus the war would not go nuclear. Second, it is not just our oil. We are not the prime importers of Middle Eastern oil, but ourselves the world’s second largest producer. Europe, China, and India, and indeed the entire present global system needs a stable supply from Iraq and its neighbors. Third, for all the horror of North Korea it is not involved in the present Islamic terrorist movement. Iraq had ties with al Qaeda in Kurdistan and was involved in pre-September terrorists aid, and its autocracy was emblematic of the failure that in that region leads to Islamicism. 75% of all Koreans live under a democracy — in the south. No Arabs do yet.

Charlotte, N.C.: I read today that we bombed two bridges inside Iraq. Don’t you generally blow your own bridges in retreat? What does that say about or efforts in Iraq, that we cannot secure or hold these bridges?

Victor Davis Hanson: Actually, you just as often do not blow bridges in retreat, unless you plan on never returning. As I understand it, we blew them to cut off the insurgents not escape from them. In this war there are no fronts, neither London, New York, or Madrid. Victory comes not just from safe territory, but from defeating and discrediting an ideology, and that’s what we are doing.

Peshawar, Pakistan: Mr Hanson, having a paper constitution and paper government as well as barely capable security services is not a definition of success or winning. Iraqis are still living in misery with violence, unemployment, poor infrastructure etc. You can crow all you want about the constitution and elections, but they do nothing to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. I would also dispute your answer to the questioner from Silver Springs. What happens in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt etc is independent of Iraq and has its own pace and dynamics.

Why are neoconservatives like you so reluctant to admit your failures?

Victor Davis Hanson: 1. Iraqis have lived with misery since the onset of Saddam. But the government is not now engaged in systematic terror, genocide, or murder. And that is a big difference. I didn’t crow about anything but repeatedly stressed the tragedy and difficulty. Elections are already making a difference; it depends on who you are; ask a Kurd or Shiite if they wish to return to the 1980’s or 1990’s. What happens around Iraq is of vital importance, and is dependent in no small degree on Iraqi failure or success.

All neoconservative means is “new conservative”. On this policy I support the President though I am a Democrat; on matters of open borders, agriculture subsidies, deficit spending, and other issues I do not. I supported Clinton’s effort in the Balkans at a time when conservatives such as Tom DeLay opposed it.

Phoenix, Ariz.: To suggest that “even the Left” believed Iraq had WMD is a bit misleading. Democratic politicians went along with the U.S. party line. People in other countries were not so sure. The lists of misdeed by Iraq you list, while impressive, could easily be listed for Israel who we know has WMD. Can Saudi Arabia or Turkey or Egypt just launch war on Israel because they may feel threatened? And you never answered a basic question — how long will this enterprise take and how many lives lost. Its funny how the most strident supporters of this war sit in academia, government or corporate offices — no sacrifice, plenty of gain.

Victor Davis Hanson: This is an absurd letter. We don’t worry about WMD in France or the U.K. or Israel, because they are under control of elected and constitutional governments. That is why we worry less about Russia’s arsenal, even with its present government, than during the Soviet era. No one knows how long any war will last; but in terms of past ones from WWI to Vietnam, we have waged a war that has tried to minimized the costs in lives. I have not gained off the war, and wrote far more books before than after September 11. Your comment reminds of my farming neighbors who when we all were going broke said no one had the right to comment on agricultural policy unless they grew food. I added that according to his crazy logic — nor eat it either unless they were on the tractor all day long.

St Brieuc, France: Before we go round the world removing tyrannical dictators (surely a laudable aim in theory) maybe we should first start by not putting them in place, then propping them up? Iraq is a case in point. Noone punished him for gassing the Kurds, and western governments practically ignored it, because he was an ally then.

There’s even some indication that he (mistakenly, I assume) believed he was being given the go-ahead to invade Kuwait at a meeting with the U.S. ambassador just before the invasion.

What is the U.S. government doing to rectify this disastrous policy which is the root cause of the existence of tyrants like Saddam and others?

Victor Davis Hanson: I agree with some of what you say. But up to 1991, the U.S. had supplied Saddam with 2% of his arsenal, your country far more. And we, unlike you, had no oil concessions in Iraq after 1991. It was a terrible mistake in March 1991 to encourage revolt and then let him butcher the revolters, and with air power no less.

I don’t think April Gillespe gave the go ahead as commonly thought, and that invasion was not condoned by the US as we saw.

We have had a long policy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend well before the Iran-Iraqi war — witness the 400,000 trucks given to a mass murdering Stalin to defeat Hitler. But lately that realpolitik has lost its resonance, and even “allies” like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who say “the alternative to us is even worse” are sounding more and more shrill.

Minneapolis, Minn.: I’m confused by one of your thoughts: “No further September 11 like attacks have transpired, although that is not true of the U.K., Spain, Turkey, and elsewhere.” The U.K. was and is one of the U.S.’s strongest ally in this war. If Iraq was indeed linked to Al Qaeda and this war is legitimate, why was Britain attacked and the U.S. wasn’t?

Victor Davis Hanson: Because the U.S. has made enormous strides in domestic security and immigration changes. U.S. Muslims do not poll 25-35% in favor of attacking their own country of residence and that makes it hard to find a good host community to operate within. That being said, after 4 years the U.K. has only been hit twice, and may not be again, given its U.S.-like new measures under discussion.

Landover, Md.: Your comment that you supported Madeline Albright’s adventure in the Balkans reveals much. When someone makes a comment like “what good is a world class military if you don’t use it”, it reveals the soul of an Interventionist. Things are to be messed with.

They should spend some time getting shot at or blown up rather than shedding crocodile tears for “poor Iraqis”. The military exists to protect our security and our interests. This war does neither.

Victor Davis Hanson: I was not an interventionist per se. It was only when after 10 years of genocide and the urgent request of our NATO allies that we intervened late. And as I said I did not support a 1998 letter to Clinton advocating preemption in Iraq. But after 9-11 fighting overseas made a lot of sense as did rejecting the cruise missile/writ policy of past retribution. We have still lost only 65% of those killed on the first day of this war, and that is a testament to our skill and bravery of our soldiers.

Bristow, Va.: Sir, in the concluding paragraph of your editorial you said:

“Some of whom we fight are international terrorists who hate the fact that in our way of life we can choose who will govern us, the method in which we worship, and the myriad other freedoms we have. We are fighting so that these fanatical terrorists do not enter the sacred ground of our country and we have to fight them in our own backyard.”

Your concluding paragraph seems self-contradictory to me. The very fact that the terrorists (Al-Qaeda) are international in scope implies that no matter where we fight them in the world this will not prevent them from attacking us here in at home. This statement is completely consistent with numerous statements by President Bush indicating that another attack within the U.S. should be expected.

Indeed, it appears that the movement inspired by Bin Laden is gaining strength. A researcher in Israel has documented the number of Jihadists Websites on the Internet over time. From fewer than a dozen when President Bush came to office to almost 5000 as of a few months ago. This empirical evidence would seem to imply that our own policies are furthering the war plans of our enemies, i.e. the lifeblood of Al-Qaeda is recruitment. Could Iraq actually be undermining our security?

Victor Davis Hanson: You too do not read what is written. I quoted that from a wounded officer who gave those remarks as an eulogy. I, like the Col. quoted, believe that the U.S. has the better ability to destroy jihadists worldwide than they do to attack the U.S. Thank you all for your questions. I tried to answer as many as quickly and honestly as possible. And while no one seemed to agree with much of what I wrote, I thank you for your courtesy and the spirit of you criticism.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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