Riding Off Into the Sunset

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

[A shorter version of this essay appears in the current issue of National Reviewmagazine.]

“The end of cowboy diplomacy” Time Magazine recently announced of George Bush’s supposed turn to softer talk and more multilateral policy-making. The growing beltway consensus is that the beleaguered President finally awoke to learn that he could no longer posture as the lone ranger on the frontier. Rather, in a interdependent, sophisticated global world, there is apparently no place for his easy “smoke ‘em out”, “dead or alive” world view — or even those post-9/11 photo-ops of Bush driving his pick-up around the “ranch” to chain-saw brush while wearing a Stetson and shades.

So we are likely to hear no more “Get out of Dodge” threats in the manner that the President once gave Saddam and his sons “48 hours” to clear out of Iraq . And I doubt he will return to a meeting of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for an encore performance of his February 2002 Wyatt Earp-like warning, “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.” Perhaps George Bush is no longer the youthful and cocky John Wayne of Ringo Kid fame, who inStagecoach was turned loose to clean out the outlaw Plummer clan. Instead, after Iraq is he now to be an older, more circumspect Wayne in the actor’s last role as the dying J.B. Brooks of the Shootist who accepts that both he and his Wild West world don’t belong in the new century?

Europeans, we are also told, sigh relief at the end of all this black/white, good/bad frontier justice. Their preferred American leader is a metrosexual John Kerry or Al Gore in tasteful earth tones, talking in effusive praise at Davos of the United Nations, coalition building, Kyoto , and consultation with the European Union. Indeed, Al Gore dismissed Bush’s showdown in Iraq , as a “Do-it-alone, cowboy-type reaction to foreign affairs.” And then he tried to turn Bush’s cowboyism on its head, “There’s ample basis for taking off after Saddam, but before you ride out after Jesse James, you ought to put the posse together.”

Many Americans, however, remember their Old West lore that while the proverbial posse bickers and dithers, the outlaw gets away to do as he pleases — in the manner that Saddam for twelve years violated U.N. accords, weapons inspections, and his 1991 Gulf War surrender promises. At least some of the President’s former appeal, then, was precisely this resonance with the nineteenth-century cowboy.

John Wayne, deep in the saddle, still has a far stronger emotional pull for Americans than contemporary yuppism — as we learned in 2004 when John Kerry was caught too often on film in spandex while windsurfing or biking. Unlike those in Europe or the Blue coastal states, most Americans’ image of the America cowboy is mostly positive — neither that of a psychopathic killer like Billy the Kid nor even the murderous anti-heroes of director Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, over-the-hill outlaws who go down in a final blaze of glory in Mexico, taking almost everyone in their midst along with them.

Instead, the cowboy more often evokes marshal Will Kane of High Noon. When given the choice of riding out of Hadleyville for a much deserved retirement with his newlywed wife, the tired Gary Cooper instead turns back to face the Miller gang alone. Although his prospects of survival are slim, Kane won’t run or abandon his town that, in fact, would rather appease such killers. In that sense, for some it is not such a bad thing for cowboy Bush to confront regional bullies like Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Kim Jong Il, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — even if the Europeans, like the townspeople of Hadleyville, delude themselves that the Millers of our world would leave them alone if their stubborn self-appointed protector would just ride away. The recent unprovoked attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the verbiage from Iran and Syria should disabuse any of that naiveté.

George Bush also understands that, besides rugged individualism, tough language, and resolute action, there is another strain to the American myth of the selfless cowboy — that of the tragic hero. Although Will Kane eventually shoots the outlaws and saves Hadleyville, he throws down his star and rides out as planned. Neither he nor the relieved townspeople want the marshal to stay on after the carnage.

An even better reminder of the willingness of the American cowboy to clean up the town and then depart is George Stevens’ 1953 classic Shane. When the mysterious former gunslinger rides into a picturesque mountain valley, he finds the forces of civilization in the form of “sodbusters” preyed on by a ruthless cattle magnate who doesn’t want his survival of the fittest world tamed by fences and do-gooder homesteaders.

Unfortunately, the farmers’ very trust in a vision of a lawful and ordered society makes them almost helpless against range marauders when there is not yet any judge, sheriff, or jury to protect them. When the beleaguered homesteaders discuss the lawlessness of the range hands, they sound about as impotent as the U.N. Security Council. Enter Shane of a mysterious checkered past, who reluctantly shoots the cattle baron and his hired guns, and then trots off wounded into the sunset — resigned that the very methods he employs to save civilization make him tainted and unable to live within it when the threat is past.

That Greek tragic theme — Sophocles’ dramas Ajax and Philoctetes center on the flawed hero that we both shun and need — is a Western constant. In theMagnificent Seven, the outcast hired guns ride into save a Mexican village from bandits. Then after the bloodletting, the surviving Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen depart knowing that they are not to enjoy the tranquility and order that they have alone been able to impart to others only through their gunplay.

John Ford also captured that tragic sense brilliantly in The Searchers, in which only a near psychopathic John Wayne as Ethan Edwards could track down Chief Scar and his renegade Indian Comanche band who kidnapped his neice — precisely because Edwards was not altogether civilized himself. And in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne played stoic Tom Doniphon who is willing to bushwack the no-good Liberty Valance — if it means saving the bumbling lawyer Ransom Stoddard, whose law books are the proper civilized future of the imperiled town of Shinbone . Both Edwards and Doniphon accept the paradox that there is no future for the brutal defender of society once he has vanquished the savagery that threatened civilization.

Perhaps George Bush understood this irony of the good cowboy in the American imagination. If so, he has accepted both that someone had to deal with Saddam Hussein after society’s failure to corral him with United Nations’ sanctions and international scolds, and that the self-appointed enforcer would find himself later alone and stigmatized as uncouth by the very ones who so often in the past called for Saddam’s ouster.

Just as there is more to the cowboy myth than “shoot ‘em up” justice and throw-away lines about stringing up bad guys, so too there may be more to George Bush’s evocation of the frontier than his strut and twangy braggadocio. He surely is resigned that his past willingness to go it alone that we slur as “preemption” and “unilateralism” — whether by introducing to the world the “Axis of Evil,” renouncing the ABM treaty, or promising to take down rogue regimes — is both sometimes necessary for the future security of a civilized West, and yet ensures that his audacity will not be appreciated until he is riding well off into the sunset. Only then can we quit condemning his methods that brought us our own security.

The truth is that we live in a global Hadleyville that has deluded itself that international communications, cell phones, or the Internet — like the onset of the 19th-century railroad and telegraph — equate to civilization. In fact, they are all only a thin flashy veneer atop a still wild and savage world in which outlaw regimes like North Korea , Saddam’s Iraq , or Iran push until stopped. After all, the present-day United Nations can protect nations and dispense justice about as well as the territorial marshal a three-day-ride away or the corrupt bought sheriff of a cattle baron’s town. And a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mullah Omar, or Saddam Hussein listens to international warnings about as much as Liberty Valance paid heed to the bumbling coward of a sheriff, Link Appleyard.

So privately most appreciate an American Tom Doniphon, Shane or Will Kane who from time to time will appear out of nowhere to stand up to a Saddam, Taliban, or Kim Jung Il — or the recent crop of bullies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. The latter all may think that an exasperated lame duck George Bush, suffering from international rebuke and low approval ratings, has dropped his flashy cowboy veneer. Perhaps and probably for the better — but they should still beware: if the now brooding Bush really is a cowboy, then he may deal with a few more rogues before he leaves — caring not at all for our present approval but only for his own code and our future safety when he is gone.

Even the dying J.B. Brooks took out the bad guys before he and his world were finally over.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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