Symposium on Iraq

Why our new idealism is enlightened Jacksonianism.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Commentary Magazine

According to opinion polls, most Americans are now critical of the President’s foreign policy. They are uncertain not merely over the daily fare of explosions in Iraq. Rather, the sustained public attack on American action abroad, emanating from both the Left and the hard Right, has led to bipartisan and broadly-shared condemnation. Even some who once were adherents of preemption have bailed out, claiming that although they supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, they are appalled by what followed. Or, translated, “In hindsight I remain in favor of my near-perfect military campaign, but not your messy reconstruction” — as if America’s past wars were not fraught with tragic lapses and muddled operations.

But for all the media hysteria and the indisputable errors of implementation, the Bush Doctrine is, in fact, moving ahead. Soon it will bear long-term advantage. Despite our inability to articulate the dangers and stakes of the war against radical Islam and our failure to muster the full military potential of the United States, and despite the fact that our own southern border remains vulnerable to terrorist infiltration, there has been enormous progress in the past four years.

We have removed both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have cost us over 2,000 American combat deaths, a hard loss and to be mourned, but still two-thirds of the number of American civilians killed on September 11, 2001, the first day of the war. Thanks to our forward policy of hitting rogue regimes abroad and staying on to help the reconstruction, coupled with increased vigilance at home, the United States has not been struck since then.

Inside Iraq there is a constitutional government grinding ahead, and a series of elections slated for ratification and/or amendment. Much is rightly made of Sunni intransigence, yet this minority population, with no oil and with a disreputable past of support for either Saddam or the Zarqawi terrorists, or both, has been put in an untenable position. Its clerics call for Iraqi Sunnis to vote no on the constitution even as Sunni radicals like Zarqawi threaten to kill any who would vote at all.

There has also been a radical transformation in regional mentalities. The elections in Egypt, though boycotted and rigged, were an unprecedented event, and the irregularities quickly ignited popular demonstrations. Events elsewhere are no less significant, as Libya and Pakistan have renounced their nuclear commerce, Syrians are out of Lebanon, and rudimentary parliaments are forming in the Gulf. Even on the Palestinian question, the death of Arafat, Israel’s building of a protective fence and its withdrawal from Gaza, and the removal of Saddam have strengthened the hand of beleaguered reformers in the West Bank and beyond. The onus for policing their miscreants is gradually shifting to the Palestinians themselves, which is where it belongs.

There are, of course, no Swiss cantons arising in the Middle East. Rather, we see the initial tremors of massive tectonic shifts, as the old plates of Islamic radicalism or secular autocracy give way to something new and more democratic. The United States is the primary catalyst of this dangerous but long-overdue upheaval. It has taken the risk almost alone; the ultimate reward will be a more stable world for all.

Much is made of global anti-Americanism and hatred of George Bush. But under closer examination, the furor is mostly confined to Western Europe, the autocratic Middle East, and our own elites here at home. In Europe, our most vocal critics, Jacques Chirac in France and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, have lost considerable domestic support, and are under challenge by realists worried about their own unassimilated minorities and appreciative of American consistency in the war against radical Islam. In the meantime, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Australians, and Indians have never been closer to the United States. Russia and China have little beef with our war on terror.

Here at home, the relative lack of bipartisan support is due partly to the media culture of the Left, partly to the turmoil and resentment of an out-of-power Democratic party, partly to uncertainty as to how it will all turn out. On the far Right, some see only too much money being spent, too much proliferation of government, and too much Israel in the background.

What lies ahead? We must continue to navigate the dangerous narrows between the two unacceptable alternatives of secular dictatorship and rule by Islamic law, even as we prod recipients of American aid or military support like Mubarak, Musharraf, and the Saudi royal family to reform. At home, unless we come up with a viable policy combining increased oil production, conservation, and alternative fuels, our ability to protect ourselves from international blackmail will soon begin to erode. Most forbiddingly, nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or any other non-democratic Middle Eastern country could destroy much if not all of what has been accomplished. What would have happened in the late 1930’s had America found itself dependent on Romanian oil or German coal, or learned that Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco was close to obtaining atomic weapons?

I continue without reserve to support our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our pressure for reform in the Middle East at large. Not because the Bush Doctrine follows some predetermined neoconservative agenda — I thought the January 28, 1998 letter by the Project for the New American Century, urging the removal of Saddam Hussein, was ill-conceived at the time — but rather because, in a post-9/11 age, muscular idealism is the new American realism, the one antidote to Islamic radicalism and its appendages of terror.

Rather than seeking empire or economic advantage, or being recklessly utopian, our present policy promotes democracy abroad even as we downsize in Germany and South Korea and withdraw all our troops from Saudi Arabia. This is striking, and admirable. What are we to make of this tough new doctrine that is neither wide-eyed Wilsonian idealism nor cold-war realpolitik? Call it something like enlightened Jacksonianism — a determination to undertake needed military action and to promote political reform consistent with our democratic values when, and only when, a continuation of the status quo abroad first threatens the security of the United States.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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