The Look Back

Why are we split over the war since 9/11?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

Two views are emerging about our post-September-11 world. One is angry, but also therapeutic—and most often embraced by the Left. I think it goes roughly like this. Removing the Taliban in our initial rage might have for a moment seemed necessary, but things now in retrospect have proved not much better than before in Afghanistan and might well get worse. There was no need for the Iraqi campaign. Thus the Europeans and moderate Arabs were right that chaos would result and terrorists multiply in its bitter aftermath. Sharon has only antagonized the Palestinians, set back the peace-process, and made America’s war far more difficult. Mr. Bush’s unilateral rhetoric and vainglorious posture have needlessly offended the Europeans, who now have recently developed a real dislike of the United States and likewise complicated our task.

Here at home the Patriot Act and certain dangerous new jurisprudence are greater concerns than any prior inability of rounding up sleeper cells. No wonder almost every day an Al Gore, Howard Dean, or Ted Kennedy is screaming or yelling about something. It doesn’t feel good to have so much money, education, and sophistication and still not be able to stop this dangerous course of events—that are the “worst ever,” “unprecedented,” and “a new low” in American history.

The other interpretation is somewhat tragic, largely upbeat about our recent accomplishments, and held by those on the more conservative side. Given the bleak options after the destruction of the World Trade Center, the prior murderous history of Afghanistan, and the depressing landscape of the Middle East, the past three years are nothing short of miraculous: Taliban gone; constitutional government emerging; and a good man like Karzai trying to end fundamentalist terror. Saddam, his sons, and Iraqi genocide are now over with. And despite the daily turmoil, Iraq is likewise inching toward some type of consensual government in less time than was true of a more sophisticated postwar Japan or Germany. There is a good chance that the Israelis will leave Gaza; suicide bombing is vastly reduced; a new fence will give both sides a breather until—and if—a legitimate Palestine government emerges to negotiate final borders.

As far as our “allies” go, Mr. Bush simply tore off the scab of the preexisting wound of Europe-American relations, in which the subsidized protection offered by the United States in the post-Cold War had far earlier led to an array of conflicting passions on the continent, arising out of an increasingly anti-democratic EU, envy, dependency, and resentment. In America proper—without much erosion of our daily ease and freedoms—we have rounded up scores of terrorists and thus so far avoided another mass murder. Consequently, conservatives are more likely to speak in calm tones than either scream for resignations or in wild-eyed fashion cite conspiracies that are destroying America.

How to adjudicate these two conflicting views of the present situation? We cannot. Why so?

The answer is that our interpretations of the present crisis are predicated on our own larger views of mankind itself. The tragic sense accepts us as flawed and thus expects setback, mistakes, and even moral lapses. The therapeutic view in contrast demands perfection right now and thus allows for few, if any, mistakes. Some of us look to history and thus gauge our present war rather humane at least by the losses of prior conflicts, the mess in rebuilding Japan and Germany, and the audacity of trying to bring consensual government to an autocratic Middle East.

Others trust more in the promises of social science, and thus are ignorant of the horror of past American wars, but fault us daily for our inability to use the proper wisdom or protocol to restore full power, stop all violence, and ensure professional behavior on the part of our soldiers. If one prisoner is humiliated at Abu Ghraib, his plight deserves far more world air time than the one million souls lost in Saddam Hussein’s culture of death—simply because the United States that listens, not the Baathists who do not, is culpable.

There is another divide as well. One group of Americans believes that tranquility is the more natural state of man and its return our instantly achievable goal above all else. Others concede that some people and nations are by nature aggressive and violent and thus will cause big trouble until stopped—and stopping them is sometimes rough. The former group looks back at 25 years and sighs that we were at least not at war; the latter frowns and says that the constant appeasement in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, East Africa, and Yemen was a false and dangerous lull that in fact ensured that the ultimate reckoning on September 11 would be only more lethal.

If you believe that the nature and origins of America are exceptional, then you have more trust in its elected government than in the unelected UN, more confidence in its judiciary than in the international court at The Hague, and more reliance on its free citizenry and press than on what is found in most places in the world. If, on the other hand, you are certain that the United States has practiced an unparalleled sort of racism, sexism and class exploitation, then it is not deserving of any special consideration, then or now. Instead, as merely one of many nations, it should defer to the consensus of the world, and thus embrace multilateral solutions rather than try to address problems on its own.

If you think that the United States itself was a rejection of the statism, aristocracy, and government intrusion of Europe, then after the aberration of WWII and the Cold War, you would expect that natural tensions would arise with our continental allies. But if you imagine that the new Europe uniquely understands the perils of individualism, capitalism, and the dangers of patriotic optimism, then you take seriously Europe’s criticism and lament sorely its fury with us.

If one believes that Middle East terrorism is difficult to eradicate without addressing nation states that sponsor, subsidize, or appease it, then the present policy is inevitable. And if one believes war is a nasty horrific business that nevertheless sometimes eliminates terrible wrong and can make things better than the evil left unchecked in peace, then we are on the right track and doing about as well as possible. But if you know that terrorism is a cry of the heart of the oppressed and thus mitigated mostly with money, education, and understanding, then you feel helpless as your country kills those who otherwise might have been reached with kindness.

So our divergent views reflect our differing takes on human nature itself. Are we born into the world mostly humane and thus in danger from civilization —or arrive here rather savage and sorely in need of culture? Some Americans believe there is a reason why when we see chopped-off heads in the West it is at places like a Florentine Piazza where a Cellini’s bronze Perseus of the 16th century holds up Medusa, while in the Middle East a Daniel Pearl or Nick Berg is decapitated for a gruesome tape on al Jazeera.

Did Mr. Khadafy or Dr. Khan come forward about their respective transgressions because they feared ending up in Saddam’s spider hole, or did they at last see a new UN horizon in which all nations would live in peace and forsake nuclear proliferation?

When some of us see suicide bombers we do not surmise that we are up against a new unstoppable phenomenon arising out of poverty, oppression, and American exploitation, but think back to what Kitchener did with the Mahdists and our own grandfathers with the Kamikazes. When we conjure up Afghanistan and Iraq, we factor in thousands of miles in distance, 30 years of mass murder, the nature of the Middle East, and thus can easily imagine much worse might have occurred than what has transpired. We don’t conclude that 9-11 was an accident or something caused by an overweening US, but inevitable given our appeasement of a past quarter century.

Which view do most Americans embrace—the tragic or therapeutic vision? Probably neither. Instead the majority just wishes things to go well and usually sides with those who can offer them the most reassurance in the present danger. Still, this should be an interesting election, the most ideologically clear-cut choice of candidates that we have seen since 1932 or 1968. Gloomy, frustrated utopians and oddly upbeat optimistic pragmatists will each offer the American public widely different views of Iraq—and therein of ourselves as well.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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