The Event of the Age

Iraq is becoming the deciding issue of our time.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Talk, yell, spin, flip, back peddle — so America’s elite pundits endlessly regurgitate the debate over Iraq. Most are terrified that last week’s gloomy prognosis will be proven foolish by this week’s relative absence of bombings — only in turn to be shown prescient by next week’s turmoil. Those talking heads who gushed “We are all neoconservatives now” last April now slur “Mr. Bush’s War,” forecasting doom and perpetual “quagmire.” The only constant is that they will probably proclaim themselves to be Wilsonians a year from now when Iraq is calmed down and a consensual government established there. Yet while the elites of America and Europe chatter on, so also does the building of democracy in Iraq.

Indeed, each day the great gamble in Iraq is taking on significance that transcends the immediate tactical advantages that accrued from ridding the world of Saddam Hussein’s savagery. True, the world is a far better place without the worry of Kurdish genocide, 10,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, perpetual no-fly zones, clumsy U.N. embargos, Abu Abbas loose, guided missiles and WMD programs in Iraq, blood money for suicide bombers, exasperation that Saddam Hussein had violated 1991 agreements, SCUDs raining down on Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv, assassination plots against American presidents, and so on. But there are other positive rippling effects that are already beginning to become manifest.

States are like people. They do not question the awful status quo until some dramatic event overturns the conventional and lax way of thinking. The autocracies of Latin America resented Spain and Portugal in theory, but themselves only embraced democratic reform after the demise of the old mother tyrannies in Madrid and Lisbon. A newly democratic Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan have played a role in demonstrating to some Chinese that their own dictatorship is a relic of the past. The tottering Soviet Union was the catalyst for freedom among Eastern Europeans, and its failure convinced them that there was no future in state-imposed Stalinism.

So, too, a successful consensual government in Baghdad will serve as a glimpse of what life can be like amid the economic and political stagnation of the surrounding Arab world. More importantly, it will confront radical Islam with a competing ideology that possesses a far more revolutionary message than the Islamists’ tired old culture of death that ruined Afghanistan and Iran, wrecked the economy of the West Bank, tore apart Algeria, ended the tourist industry of Egypt, brought international scorn on Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, turned the president of Malaysia into an international laughingstock, nearly made Pakistan an outlaw regime — and led to the reckoning after 9/11. Holdover Soviet-style Baathism didn’t work; Islamic fascism was a failure; tribal dictatorship and monarchies are no better; Pan-Arabism was a cruel joke. The Arab world is running out of alternatives to democratic governments and free markets.

A free Iraq will place a terrible dilemma on the governments and elites of these closed Arab societies who must explain to their own poor and oppressed how satellite pictures of voting Iraqis, Internet cafes, and raucous debates on television are really fabricated images concocted by the American-Zionist international consortium. There is a time bomb ticking in the Middle East, but it is in Cairo and Damascus and Riyadh, where corrupt elites can only pray that things don’t calm down in Baghdad and thereby prompt al Jazeera to switch from tailing dead-end Baathists to interviewing Iraqi parliamentarians.

Iraq is also becoming a reflecting pool of the world at large. Millions are slowly learning how different the United States is from its critics in Europe. France will threaten the awful regime in Libya but only about matters of monetary recompense, in the same manner that money led both it and Germany to trade with Saddam Hussein after 1991 and haggle over oil concessions for the next half century. Neither state would remove a dictator, much less pledge lives and nearly $90 billion to create a democracy in the Middle East. All that is too concrete, too absolute, too unsophisticated for the philosophes, who would always prefer slurring a democracy to castigating some third-world bloody ideologue. The Europeans, remember, are now grandstanding about the need for American “transparency” in the distribution of their paltry few millions in Iraq in a manner that they never demanded of their billions once dumped onto a corrupt Palestinian Authority.

There are bombings regularly in Spain; over 10,000 died in France due to either a defect in its socialist government or indeed in its very national character; and Russia obliterated Grosny. But a single death or bomb in Baghdad alone seems to merit condemnation from the Europeans, whose leaders seem incapable of using the words “victory” and “freedom,” much less “sacrifice” and “liberation.” They may lavish awards and money on a Jimmy Carter or Susan Sontag, who criticize their own country’s efforts in the midst of a deadly war; but the true moralists are those who risk taking on tyrants, not those who carp from the sidelines that such courageous efforts are sometimes messy. It seems to be a rite of old age for American progressives these days to travel to Europe and trash their alma mater as they troll for the applause of a smug, cynical audience, the more boldly when they are not answered and confronted by independent thinkers abroad. But such showboating is going to be increasingly difficult once a liberal and humane society emerges in Iraq.

These Europeans like multilateral solutions not out of principle so much as because the tortuous process of implementing them creates the illusion that, in the meantime, nothing must be done. Hence, by the time the U.N. acts, most Bosnians or Rwandans or Kuwaitis are long gone, a sort of “talk, talk/die, die policy.” Had a Chirac or Schroeder said something like, “With confidence in our values and with right, as we see, it on our side, we shall fight alongside our democratic ally, the United States, and together remove this Dark Age government in Iraq that has butchered so many innocents at home and abroad, and so menaces the peace of all democratic states,” he would have doomed his career in a single hour.

For some reason Paris and Berlin — and their American admirers — think that the reconstruction of Iraq should be perfect in six months, despite the fact that European and U.N. efforts in the Balkans are not perfect after a near decade. Yet it is likely that Saddam Hussein — on the lam for six months — will be found more quickly than the odious Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic who, under very suspicious circumstances, are still in hiding inside Europe five years after their hideous regimes collapsed beneath American bombs. And will the Balkans under the U.N. — 13 years so far since hostilities commenced — achieve stability more quickly than Iraq under American auspices? Instead, when the post-9/11 war is all over, all of the dead — Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis — in the first two years of fighting will prove to be a fraction of those slaughtered in the former Yugoslavia during the decade of European non-fighting. We have seen the European new world order, and its pacifist and socialist utopia leads to Sbrenica and an August of mass death in France.

Our own politics are similarly convulsed. The old notion of Democratic idealism is in shambles. Unless Democratic contenders can come up with alternative plans for Iraq or explain exactly why some of them once made a mistake in voting for the war, then their constant carping will remain just that, and will become embarrassingly shrill in the months ahead — witness the ongoing flips, flops, and midair twists of Wesley Clark.

So far the opposition’s only resonance with the American people follows from its line about national self-interest (i.e., better to spend the money here at home on Americans who appreciate it). But if the administration will counter that mantra and daily explain why Iraq is the landmark event of the last 20 years, then these new shameful Copperheads will evaporate as the economy improves and Iraq is stabilized, leaving the Democratic party in the same state of bitter disarray that followed the catastrophic McGovern bid in 1972, which also offered angry protests but no concrete alternative policy.

Removing dictators and implanting democracies, after all, used to be just as much a Democratic idea as was the use of force to ensure national security in a world of dangerous and criminal tyrants. But now the sorry crop of would-be presidents resembles Republican antiwar contenders circa early 1939, who would have been outraged had we agreed to join Britain in stopping a nascent Hitler in Poland and France. We can imagine that the logic of the present hysteria would have led a Howard Dean and company in the dark days of early 1943 to hold press conferences damning those who got us into North Africa or the skies over Germany (“What do all these unnecessary B-17 deaths have to do with December 7?”) — especially when we remember that the catalyst of those counter-actions, Pearl Harbor, cost us fewer lives than September 11.

For some reason or another, a series of enormously important issues — the future of the Middle East, the credibility of the United States as both a strong and a moral power, the war against the Islamic fundamentalists, the future of the U.N. and NATO, our own politics here at home — now hinge on America’s efforts at creating a democracy out of chaos in Iraq. That is why so many politicians — in the U.N., the EU, Germany, France, the corrupt Middle East governments, and a host of others — are so strident in their criticism, so terrified that in a postmodern world the United States can still recognize evil, express moral outrage, and then sacrifice money and lives to eliminate something like Saddam Hussein and leave things far better after the fire and smoke clear. People, much less states, are not supposed to do that anymore in a world where good is a relative construct, force is a thing of the past, and the easy life is too precious to be even momentarily interrupted. We may expect that, a year from now, the last desperate card in the hands of the anti-Americanists will be not that Iraq is democratic, but that it is democratic solely through the agency of the United States — a fate worse than remaining indigenously murderous and totalitarian.

Throughout this long, perilous road — the acrimony leading up to the war, the sudden fickleness of Turkey, the last-ditch efforts of the Saddamites to empty their prisons and arm thugs and criminals, the looting of infrastructure, and the destruction of power, water, and transportation facilities — strategy and tactics were constantly in flux and events conspired to make the American effort more difficult with each unforeseen hurdle.

Yet here we stand, a little more than six months later, with a country that was the worst in the Middle East evolving into the best. We are witnessing nothing less than the revolutionary and great moral event of the age, and when it comes to pass, a reborn democratic Iraq will overturn almost all the conventional wisdom, here and abroad, about the Middle East, the nature and purpose of war in our age, the moral differences between Europe and America — and the place in history of George W. Bush.

No wonder the current hysteria looks likely to increase in the months ahead.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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