Time Is on Our Side

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In between morbid reports on the Peterson murders, the media — bored and a little chagrined with the rapidity of the American victory — sought to find a salacious story in the looting. Then they hyped the museum fiasco. Then it was the Shiite demonstrations, then the temporary absence of weapons of mass destruction, before returning to give more coverage to the tragic killing of a mother and her infant than had been given to the millions affected by war and the hundreds of Iraqis who just died in the liberation of their country.

Somewhere amid all of this hysteria, we were told in one 24-news cycle that we were ready to “invade” Syria. Yet — no matter how odious the Syrian dictatorship — there is little likelihood the United States will use force to liberate Lebanon, expel its terrorists, publicly hunt down refugee Iraqi Baathists inside Damascus, or topple the regime. Americans after World War II had no desire to resume hostilities to free Eastern Europe from Soviet totalitarianism. Vietnam soured us on stopping the Cambodian holocaust. And expelling Saddam from Kuwait was deemed enough — even as thousands of Kurds and Shiites paid the price for our eagerness to go home.

So, for both good and bad reasons, Americans have shown a historical tendency to tire quickly after a war, and prefer a long breather before going on to new enemies. The American street is also becoming exhausted with images of a few thousand screaming Iraqis damning their liberators for failing to provide instant material security following on 30 years of national suicide — and thus has no immediate desire for a repeat in Syria. It is depressing, after all, to see Shiites defaming the very people who just gave them the freedom that they themselves could not achieve. Most Americans would sigh that Iraqis could better spend their time by ending the staged demonstrations and instead getting back to work to reconnect their water and power, clean up their streets, and register voters.

But a better reason for our wariness is that, for the first time in decades, time is on our side in that part of the world. Most would laugh at such optimism. But billions of dollars in world aid will soon pour into Baghdad, as oil revenues now freed from Saddam’s clutches are used to finance reconstruction projections. Kuwait and other Gulf states have experience in building businesses and will be eager to invest in Iraq; they themselves are more likely to liberalize than to return to reactionary fundamentalism. And — unfortunately — we have about a year’s worth of grisly discoveries to come from some 30 years’ worth of Saddam’s terror. So it is odd to say that “the war was easy, the peace will be the hard part” — as if defeating Hitler and Tojo had been easier than the postbellum reconstruction of Germany and Japan.

The sheer number of factions emerging in Iraq is proof of the birth-pangs of democracy, the principled reluctance of the United States to impose its own rule, and the near-impossibility of fundamentalists controlling the wide political landscape. For all their sinister cabals, Marxism and Khomeinism are both spent forces that have no resonance outside (and little even within) a bankrupt Cuba, North Korea, or Iran. These tired ideologies are more like the dreary bureaucracy of the 1980s Soviet Union than the Communist juggernaut of the postcolonial late Forties. If a few agents and saboteurs inside Iraq are dealt with promptly and firmly in the next few weeks, there will be little chance of mass uprisings.

Pessimists shudder at the sight of screaming zealots in the streets of a freed Baghdad. But they forget that a taboo of restraint has been broken in the last month, and that there are 100,000 American soldiers there who have just obliterated the Republican Guard. After seeing the deaths of their friends, they have little if any patience for organized street toughs. Americans have bled to free Iraq, and we won’t hesitate now to use overwhelming force to stop a few cowards from ruining what our own dead helped to achieve.

Syria is now a dictatorial atoll in a growing sea of democracy, surrounded by Israel, Turkey, and a soon-to-be-consensual Iraq. It may boast that Iraq will look like Lebanon of old; but it is just as likely that Syria itself, by historical processes beyond its control, will soon start to resemble a new Iraq. Demands for a peace settlement on the West Bank and the Golan Heights will inevitably involve the question of a Syrian-held Lebanon. Who knows — perhaps the Napoleon-spouting M. Villepin may introduce a U.N. measure to champion Lebanese sovereignty, a chance to extend France’s historic concern with liberty to one of its former captive colonies?

Turkey not so much missed the train, as never got to the station, and thus next time will be more likely to seek rather than spurn American friendship. Ankara is more worried that America could in theory have a base in friendly Kurdish Iraq than it is eager to expel us from Turkish soil. Poll Americans: They seem to love Kurds as much as they now distrust Turks — and are peeved not at all by the fact that the feeling is mutual. Only now is it sinking in that Turkey lost our historic empathy, billions in assistance, and most critically the notion that it was key to our strategic position in the Middle East. Even though it behooves us to be magnanimous, the next move remains with the voters of Turkey, not us.

Iran may think it smart to use its fundamentalist agents to undermine the American achievement in Iraq. But look at the newly constituted map, where it suddenly finds itself surrounded by reformist movements. The omnipresence of the United States, twenty years of failure inside Iran, and the attractions of American popular culture will insidiously undermine the medieval reign of the mullahs faster than it can do harm to the foundations of democracy in Baghdad.

What will the theocracy do when Internet cafes, uncensored television and radio, and free papers spring up across the border in Iraq? How, after all, do you fight such a strangely off-the-wall culture as our own, which turns the villainous Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf into “Baghdad Bob,” with his own website and a cult following, replete with T-shirts and coffee mugs — or prints out thousands of decks of playing cards decorated with the names and pictures of Iraqi fascists?

In the surreal world of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia talks of the need to banish Americans liberators from Iraq to ensure “democratic government” there. But it can do all of us a favor by first expelling Americans from Saudi holy soil, and then bringing some public transparency to the labyrinth of billions of dollars (800 and counting?) that has been sequestered in foreign banks by the royal family.

True, most of the Arab street may curse infidels in Baghdad, but a sizable minority will acknowledge the freedom there and ask, “If there, why not here?” Or: “Don’t our own kleptocrats have lavish, glittery palaces of extortion just like Saddam did?” Nothing has been more pathetic in the last few days than listening to in-house Arab “intellectuals” damning the United States, ridiculing the “liberation” of Iraq, and railing at the old bogeyman of “colonialism” — even as they watch demonstrations and a freedom in Baghdad impossible in their own police states. What a burden they must carry: supporting the old Arab nationalist status quo ensures the continual absence of their own independence. Nothing is more fatal for an intellectual than complicity in his own censorship.

We also must keep the projected costs in perspective. Despite the frenzied charges, we probably so far have spent no more $30 billion on the military operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom — not the “hundreds of billions” forecast by alarmists who sometimes slipped into “trillions.”

More importantly, after the shooting has stopped, military expenses will inevitably decline, especially when we keep in mind three important points. First, the demobilization of reservists will curb costs — and regular troops are in a sense redeployed, rather than being stationed at their home bases in the United States. In other words, the Fourth Infantry Division must be fed and housed somewhere, so its upkeep in Iraq is not entirely a new outlay. Second, we sometimes forget that through the two previous administrations we were paying $2-3 billion a year to patrol the no-fly zones, perhaps over twelve years committing some $25 billion and a third of a million air sorties to keep Saddam in his “box.” That was costly. Third, since 1991 we have spent billions to station troops in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Gulf in order to protect the world’s oil supply from Saddam Hussein. Thus, in the long term, some of those garrison troops at roughly the same expense can be redeployed or brought home once Iraq achieves stability — or in fact soon transferred directly into Baghdad to keep the peace.

We will see additional dividends in the future. The display of American force in service to values will have a powerful effect on allies, neutrals, and enemies — in Europe, the Korean peninsula, and the Middle East. Another irony of the three-week war is that Americans took an entire country in days from a tinysingle front in Kuwait. In other words, nearby allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey learned that their bases are no longer a means with which to extort money and gain political concessions: If you want us out, then kick us out — we will find either other friends, or at least the means of operating without such hosts. South Korea should take a hard look at all this, learning that the United States can choose when and where to act — and when to go it alone (or go home) if not wanted.

If Mr. Rumsfeld’s military taught us anything, it is that Americans can fight without having to compromise their values by paying bribe money or political capital to host countries. With anti-ballistic missile defense on the horizon, and new lighter, more mobile forces emerging — coupled with novel allies who would welcome smaller bases — America will only be in a more favorable political and military position in the decades to come. Oddly, critics see in all this imperialism; but in fact, a post-9/11 republic of the United States is ultimately seeking to create a world in which killers do not fly planes and captive American citizens into its buildings — even as we leave smaller, not larger, footprints abroad.

We do not need to, nor should we, attack or even threaten a criminal Syria with a force that we probably won’t employ. Creating permanent change in Iraq and allowing the world to realign itself to new moral realities will soon enough squeeze Mr. Assad as never before. The future, you see, is on not his, but our, side. It is precisely because the last decade has seen American military power — against Noriega, bin Laden, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein — used for the promotion of human freedom and humanitarian values that our enemies are so exasperated and the neutrals so shrill.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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