The Vision Thing

Convincing Americans to stick with a crazy Middle East.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Various Syrian foreign ministers, speaking on behalf of a recognized terrorist state, recently warned Israel for fostering “instability” throughout the region by taking out the supposedly empty infrastructure of a killers’ training base on Syrian soil. Eliminating such a haven is now deemed inflammatory; habitually blowing up innocent children in Haifa is accepted as pretty much normal business in the Middle East.

Occupy an entire country like Lebanon and the world snores, but bomb a terrorist camp and it snarls. Still, for all the bluster on spec, the “Arab world” is not sure it wishes to send its jets to sure paradise merely to avenge the honor of Bashar al Assad, who can’t even provide air cover for the murderers’ base that he subsidizes and whose ruins are off-limits to reporters. Disgusted with all this, most Americans flip the channel when any spokesman from the “Arab League” appears on screen to warn about “repercussions” to come.

The “world community” wishes that the dispute would simply go away — so messy, so disturbing are these televised images of body parts, charred gristle, and human hair that blow out from the flaming cafes of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, followed by macabre pronouncements and atrocious home videos from an array of primordial terrorist groups on the West Bank. Americans seek to interview Palestinians to offer them subsidized travel and study; as thanks they are blown up, and their rescuers stoned as they reach the murder scene — this from our “friends” to whom we give millions of dollars in aid and who cheered the news of 9/11.

Not even sympathetic New York Times interviews with the proud families of the suicide murderers can quite salvage a shred of sympathy for their cold-blooded slaughtering, itself now robbed of Saddam’s once ample subsidies. Still, if only Israel would dismantle those pesky settlements, Europeans and many Americans sigh — blissfully forgetting that three wars were fought when the West Bank was under Arab sovereignty or that far more Arabs live in peace in Israel than the number of Jews who reside in fear on the West Bank.

All the while Europe shouts “Sharon this, Sharon that,” but privately wonders, “Why should we have to insist on civilized behavior from Israel’s neighbors, when the Jews are so few, their country so small, and their nation so young — without oil, terrorists, and millions of expatriates on our shores?” Allow the burning of a synagogue in Paris or the toppling of a Jewish gravestone in Munich and you get a reasoned plea for tolerance from the local rabbi; clamp down on Islamic fundamentalists in Frankfurt or Marseilles and you may get a riot or bomb. Disgusted with all this, most Americans flip the channel when any European diplomat appears on screen to lecture Israel about “provocative measures.”

In related questions that concern the Middle East, can’t the United States be more polite, the world wonders, and thus ensure us tranquility? So the U.N., the EU, and various international bodies worry that the Bush administration might ratchet up the pressure on Iran to cease and desist from fabricating nuclear weapons. In contrast, allowing Tehran to violate international accords and obtain a bomb — accompanied by threats from government officials to use it — is apparently the saner or at least the less bothersome course.

And so, many Americans tire of the burdens of this world role and often think we are delusional in trying to help those who seem to hate us. But when we look at potential surrogate peacekeepers, it is even scarier. A rising superpower, China, is run by autocrats, renegade in much of its attitudes toward international trade and commercial protocols, and somewhat mad in its first forays into international adventurism. The world should ask itself why most of China’s neighbors — Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea — are nuclear, and a variety of others, like Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea, might be. So much for the stabilizing influence of Chinese diplomacy.
For the present, the idea that a Chinese navy might bring order to the sea-lanes off Japan, adjudicate claims of dispossessed Tibetans, or seek peaceful political integration with a democratic Taiwan remains laughable.

Much of Europe is soon to be no partner at all, but will increasingly be cause for great mockery on the world stage — the weaker its will and ability to enforce codes of civilized behavior abroad grows, the greater its shrill propensity to voice utopian bromides. The U.N.? It is simply a rusty chain of tribes, only as strong as its numerous corroded links, the really awful regimes like Iran, Syria, Libya, and Zimbabwe that pollute its General Assembly discussions and bring ridicule to its commissions. What a weird group that denies membership to democratic Taiwan but extends veto power to communist China and leadership roles to criminal regimes like Syria or Iran.

In short, the world knows that North Korea, Iran, and the fanatic regimes in the Middle East are time bombs that could ignite a catastrophe such as we have not seen since World War II. But much of the world also seems to think that the painful remedies for these tragedies on the horizon — principled deterrence in the here and now or perhaps even preemptive action when reasoned warnings fail — are far worse.

So they take the coward’s way out and leave it to America: simultaneously blaming us for inaction in Liberia and for action in Iraq; sort of empathizing with us when we suffer 3,000 citizens murdered, but angry when we take steps to retaliate; complaining that they are asked to help clean up the mess in postwar Afghanistan and Iraq, yet relieved that they were never obligated to end the mess of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein in the first place.

The central task of this present administration must be to convince Americans to shoulder these thankless tasks that are so critical for both world peace and our own national security, especially when the immediate costs so often cloud the more abstract and long-term benefits. It is not easy when our best are wounded or killed for a cause so commonly mischaracterized. Federal budget deficits due to rising entitlements, waste, mismanagement, and assorted questionable programs are instead much more easily blamed on military costs and foreign aid. Free and open trade that costs us so dearly is demagogued abroad as American-inspired globalization, as foreigners forget that millions of Americans, in tearing down trade barriers and running huge deficits, have lost an entire agricultural and industrial way of life.

Here in central California the emotional tug to sigh sayonara to the rest of the world’s crises and take care of our own is strong when we see thousands of acres of vineyards piled into rubbish heaps and thousands more weed-infested and abandoned, with “For Sale” signs dotting the rural landscape in the worst agrarian times since the Great Depression. Such are the consequences of recession and escalating costs in a bankrupt state — when coupled with world-bank subsidized rural-development projects abroad and the pressure from ever cheapening imports that lower the world price of wine, raisins, and fresh fruits to below the cost of production here in America.

In sum, Americans as a rule don’t mind sacrificing to ensure a better world abroad. But they do care when there is so little psychological recompense for such engagement, and so much hypocrisy from Germany, France, and the Middle East. Seasoned diplomats would warn us that such are the wages of being the world’s “hyperpower,” and scoff at an emotional need for thanks in a tough world that operates on Realpolitik.

Maybe. But, as I gauge current American public opinion, there is a rising weariness of the insanity abroad, and it will only grow unless administration spokesmen habitually address — weekly, daily, even hourly — such exasperations and counter them by appealing to the innate American sense of idealism and generosity.

Otherwise, we will finally go ballistic at enemies as loud and obnoxious as they are impotent, further sickened that our old allies are not even neutrals but themselves sound off like near enemies. Most Americans, tragically so, do not find from 30-second film clips that the Iraqi people are all that sympathetic a lot, but rather — after the war, the looting, the suicide bombings, and the complaining — that they are not worth the billions of dollars and the lost lives. And it is precisely that innate unease with ingratitude that the Democrats and the press have tapped into, at last finding some resonance with the American people.

I don’t envy our president, who must convince Americans to act with their heads and think of the future when it is so much more tempting to listen to their hearts in the present. The liberation of Iraq was a brave and necessary task — and may prove the most seminal event in world history since the fall of the Berlin Wall, doing for the Arab world what the transition to democracy in Spain and Portugal did for millions in Latin America. And a year from now, after Iraq gets used to consensual government, the present frenzied critics of our efforts will be proven as embarrassingly wrong as they were once humiliated in their prognoses of defeat in the recent three-week war. We know that, and in addition can only appreciate the amazing accomplishments in Afghanistan and Iraq during our horrific two-year odyssey since 9/11. But also, like cliffs on the shore, we are battered daily by the surf of negativism from the major newspapers, television networks, and opposition politicians, whose pounding slowly erodes the public’s once resolute defiance.

So in the meantime, we need spokesmen who can explain the stakes involved in this present war, the almost unbelievable successes achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the nonexistence of alternatives to our present courageous course. You see, we are human after all, and we are becoming increasingly worn out by those abroad who take so much and give back so little.

Of course, it is good to remind Americans that the news from Iraq is far better than the gloom and doom promulgated by the press and the political opposition, many of whom are tied inextricably to their past predictions of failure and quagmire. But in a much larger, grander sense, Americans must be reminded of more than details. They need to be assured that the war for Iraq is a noble cause, involving clear distinctions between good and evil, between a bright future and a horrendous past, between money and lives pledged for the promise of a civil society and oil profits of the past gleaned from a corrupt dictator. Americans are great souled, and so will rise to the occasion — but only if they are told that their sacrifices transcend the here and now, and will bring freedom for millions in the Middle East and security for themselves at home.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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