Riding the Back of the Tiger

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

…is what America has done since 1941. Obama wants to get off. Fine. Many of our countrymen are tired of the ride. But what makes him think that on the ground with the gnashing beast is any safer than on his back?

What Causes Wars?

I do not mean here the existential reasons for strife, brought about through pride, status, envy, honor — or even the supposed desire for riches and natural resources. But rather, less grandly, what allows those aggressions to devolve into legalize murder on a vast scale?

I ask that question, because I am not sure our President or his advisors have ever raised it. But in almost every case in the past, wars were not caused by Bush-like ‘smoke-‘em-out’ rhetoric — no more than they were prevented by “reset” button outreach or bowing to thugs or the League of Nations or the United Nations or things like the Wilsonian Cairo speech.

Usually aggression, bullying, and nationalist agendas evolve into wars — when the aggressive party is convinced it has more to gain through war than lose. And such perceptions, wrong or not, emerge when a Xerxes, a Napoleon or a Hitler are assured that their targets either cannot or will not stop them. Or, if they belatedly try to roll the dice, the resulting losses will be small in terms of what might be perceived as gain.

I am not discounting error and miscalculation. Hitler, after all, got more natural resources through purchase from the Soviet Union (a willing ally) for the Reich between late summer 1939 and June 1941 than he ever did by looting Russia between mid 1941 and 1945.

Hitler also would learn that only post facto. By June 1941 he was convinced that given Stalin’s poor performance in the recent Finnish War, the Red Army’s so-so record in splitting up Poland in 1939, and the well known past purges of the Soviet officer corps — all collated with Stalin’s mysterious efforts to placate Hitler, and denials of the impending threat — the Soviet Union would be impotent, like Norway or France. He deemed its finish a 4-5 week cakewalk.

(Remember, Hitler was also using WWI (faulty) analogies: 4 years /defeat in France vs. 2 years /victory in Russia meant 23 years later, a 6 weeks /victory in France would mean 3 weeks / triumph in Russia.

In the Arena

Take a war. Even the trivial can create dangerous impressions.

Korea? Dean Acheson’s inadvertent slip that South Korea lay outside the U.S. protective shield, coupled with (wrong) impressions about Truman, who was on record as wanting to diminish U.S. conventional forces (remember the ‘revolt of the admirals’?) — all that and more helped to convince the communists that the U.S. would not or could not react to aggression, a perception almost confirmed by the time we were encircled at Pusan.

How about the weird Falkland War (‘two bald men fighting over a comb’)? Why would Argentina take on the reputation of the centuries-old British navy over a few windswept rocks?

Let us count the ways: the sinking Argentine dictators needed a nationalist distraction? They thought the new “female” Thatcher would not be so macho? They thought the withdrawal of a British minesweeper from the Falklands would mean that their invasion would be seen as a fait accompli, not as something the far away, supposedly decadent British would fight over.

Hitler could have been stopped during the Rhineland crisis, during theAnschluss, and in Czechoslavakia, given the paucity and vulnerbality of the late 1930s Panzers. But he gambled that the French and U.K. were far more traumatized as winners in the Great War’s killing fields than were the defeated Germans.

What is the point of this pop historicizing?

Like it or not, the fragile postwar order was largely enforced by the U.S. and its Western allies, along with a general understanding that the ‘system’ had allowed a Russia, China, or the Gulf monarchies to thrive through maintenance of the “rules”. We spent trillions because we thought it cheaper for us and the world than what started in 1914 and 1939. And we were largely right.

There was a general recognition among unhinged regimes — a Cuba, Saddam’s Iraq, a Libya, a North Korea, a Syria, Venezuela — that regional aspirations were, well, contained. Redlines were everywhere — Taiwan was sacrosanct; so was South Korea. Israel would not be destroyed. Europe would not face a Russian invasion. And so on. A Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Gaddafi, Arafat, etc. would be “corralled” and not allowed to destroy the Western-inspired global order.

Not now. Ever so insidiously in just a year, with the best intentions, the President, driven by narcissism, fueled by post-Enlightenment ignorance, is undermining old-fashioned deterrence. Chavez may have called Bush a “devil” and he may appreciate his handshakes with Obama, but an “incident” along the Colombian border is now more, not less likely.

Call him pathetic (he is), but Chavez has visions of a unified South America, communist, totalitarian, and with himself as titular head. He need not invade and occupy Colombia, only bully it, shoot a bit, humiliate it, anything to show his neighbors that he is a little crazy, mean, unpredictable, and worth kowtowing to. He thinks either that Obama will do nothing or cannot do anything, or perhaps contextualizes Chavez’s own socialist indigenous grievances against “them.”

Ditto that soon most everywhere. We bow to the Chinese and think, “Wow, our Harvard Law Review, outside-the-key-three-pointer shooter, looks great as he breezily strides through the majestic hallways and handles his Q&A in full campaign mode.”

They in turn review his apology tours, dithering on Afghanistan, his bows, his trashing of Bush, his past demagoguery of the Iraq war and prior anti-terrorism protocols, his efforts to be liked, and always the soaring debt, and think “Wow, it’s soon time to make some regional readjustments and then remind old U.S. friends and allies, that we, unlike America, are terrible people to have as enemies, but rather loyal and devout friends.”

1979 On the Horizon

So I think we are going to see soon some regional flare-ups, minor in themselves, but terribly important as the world pauses to gauge the U.S. reaction. Syria and Iran feel liberated and think they can act with impunity. Turkey is an emerging regional hegemon. I would not want to be a former Soviet republic — at least if I were consensually governed, pro-Western, and democratic.

If I were in Manila, I’d start learning Chinese; if in Tokyo, I’d think about massive rearmament. I would not wish to be in NATO if east of Berlin — “allies” in the West would (cf. 1939) stay theoretic and distant, enemies would be concrete and proximate.

The survival of Israel now depends on its pilots and missiles, not on any guarantees from the U.S. In today’s currency, what we guarantee is worth about as much as U.S treasury bills, or promises of missile defense for Eastern Europe. If I were an Israeli, I’d either pray for the skill and audacity of the nation’s Air Force pilots, or begin cultivating India, Russia, and China, or that and more.

The problem with all this pessimistic view of human nature is that our elite and anointed smirk at it. They seem to say, “Tsk, tsk, we are 21st-century, Ivy-Leaguers in the postmodern age. The world is no longer like it was in 1914.” I explained all this in my latest piece in Foreign Affairs. “Cell phones and the World Court are the order of the day, not Neanderthal notions of something called ‘appeasement’”. But does anyone think human nature has changed since the Greeks due to improved diet, or that brain chemistry has altered with video games?

A Cautionary Tale

Obama inherited, he did not make the rules — whether he thinks he can hope-and-change them away or not.

He can read all the Paul Krugman’s essays he wants that swear that deficits don’t matter that much, or the borrowing is too small, or that the mega-creditor always supposedly has leverage over the lender (reader: would you rather owe a million or be owed a million?), but that does not make a soon to be $20 trillion dollar debt go away.

Such fantasy does not mean interest rates won’t climb to 5-6% and more, and does not mean that we soon will not be paying a $1 trillion a year in interest to pay back what we owe.

The President can Van-Jones the energy question all he wants, in soaring tones bellowing out “solar, wind, and millions of new green jobs!” But that does not mean that, when the global recovery begins, oil won’t go back to $100 plus a barrel. Indeed, our import tab will grow by leaps and bounds in direct proportion to the new gas and oil we find that remains off limits here at home.

And, yes, again, we can give 100 Cairo speeches, back flip even, apologize to the world for being mean to blacks, Indians, Hispanics, Europeans, Japanese, women, birds, plants, butterflies, whatever. And still an Ahmadinejad, a Chavez or a Putin will not be impressed.

With Bush’s first-term swagger, he may have made things unpopular for America among the masses. But his enemies knew that he would do what it takes to protect the U.S. His friends abroad assumed that the more they hated him publicly, the more privately they counted on his support in extremis.

Now? The more the masses hail Obama, the more overseas elites in private shudder that they are on their own.

And, of course, they are.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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