Two versions of what we should do next.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Five years after September 11, and three-and-a-half years after toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. is almost as angry at itself as it is at the enemy. Two quite antithetical views of the war on terror — and indeed, the entire American role in the Middle East — are now crystallizing.
Ideology and political affiliation are no longer necessarily touchstones to either opinion — not at a time when The Nation and The American Conservativeshare the same views on Iraq and the role of the United States abroad. Republican senators like Chuck Hagel call for withdrawal, while Democrats like a Joe Liebermann do not.
Republican realists are welcomed by liberal Democrats, who want nothing to do with the neo-Wilsonian neo-conservatives that once would have seemed more characteristic of liberal’s erstwhile idealism. It is not just that public intellectuals, politicians, generals, and journalists have different views, but their views themselves are different in almost every 24-hour news cycle. Even the Bush administration at times seems torn, gravitating between both schools of thought.
While there are dozens of variants to the following two divergent positions, they represent a clear enough picture of the present divide.
The Majority Opinion
The new majority school of thought — often described as the more nuanced and more sophisticated — seems to conclude that the “global war on terror” (if that’s even what it ever really was) is insidiously winding down to a police matter. Billions spent in lives and treasure in Iraq did not make us any safer; the passing of time, the dissipation of passions, and increased vigilance did.
We haven’t had another 9/11. Al Qaeda is probably scattered. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are exhibiting the usual, generic Middle East insanity that is largely beyond our own powers of remedy.
Rogue states in the region will ultimately be dealt with, as in the pre-Bush II past, by a sort of containment — whether through retaliatory and punitive air strikes, foreign aid concessions, shuttle diplomacy, no-fly zones, or embargoes and boycotts.
If there ever were need for strong military action and invasion, that time is clearly past, at least for now. The long-term negative effects would more than outweighed any short-term benefits — as we see from the repercussion of the mess in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan as well.
In this way of thinking, an all-encompassing Islamic fundamentalism that threatens the very survival of the West is at best mostly a fantasy — at worst, a license for the U.S. to intervene globally (often against our interests) with the excuse of “fighting terror.”
Certainly, there exists nothing as melodramatic as “Islamic fascism.” That is a misnomer that needlessly alienates millions of moderate Muslims. And such reckless and inexact nomenclature clumsily ignores both the history and all the key fissures — Shiite/Sunni; Hamas/Hezbollah; theocracy/autocracy/ monarchy; Persian/Arab/Kurd/Turk; etc. — of the complex Islamic world.
Instead, the United States, in pragmatic fashion, needs to address regional problems, particularly with more sophisticated, and less ideological, remedies.
Hamas and its rivals exist largely because of the occupied West Bank: force Israel back to its 1967 borders, and Palestinian grievances — and the violence — largely vanish, as the United States at last is freed from much of the old Pavlovian hatred so endemic in the Arab World. Radical bluster from the West Bank can sometimes sound creepy, but it is largely braggadocio, or perhaps a cry from the heart, and thus will quietly go away once the Palestinians have their own autonomous state with internationally recognized borders that reflect pre-1967 reality.
Hezbollah is not really a global terrorist network, but an offshoot of the trouble in Lebanon. It can be handled in part by granting concessions to Syria (such as an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights), winning promises from Israel to be proportionate in responding to occasional (but mostly ineffectual) border provocations, and seeking more equitable political representation for Lebanese Shiites.
Iran is a danger, but not a fatal one. It can be balanced by Sunni sheikdoms in the Gulf and checked by multilaterally sponsored and enforced sanctions authorized by the United Nations.
As far as America goes, the old method of balancing one autocracy against another, with occasional but quiet and respectful lectures about good behavior and reform, is, however regrettably, often about as much as we can do. Sporadic violence against individual Americans can be dealt with through indictments, international policing, and, in extremis, an occasional air strike.
In general, internal security measures, such as wiretaps, Guantanamo-like detention centers abroad, and the Patriot Act, were of limited, if any, efficacy in thwarting another 9/11. They now probably pose as great a threat to our freedoms as do the terrorists.
Indeed, September 11 in proper hindsight seems more and more to have been a sort of fluke, a lucky strike by al Qaeda, predicated both on their sanctuary in Afghanistan and our own somnolence. Both have since been largely addressed. So the specter of another attack of a similar magnitude may well have passed. In some ways, our over-reaction to the bogeyman of “Islamic fascism” has made us less safe, by gratuitously creating new enemies where none previously existed.
However unwise, removing Saddam Hussein may have had some initial utility. But now any benefit is overshadowed by a messy civil war, whose violence is only exacerbated by the presence of American troops that have long overstayed both their welcome and their usefulness.
The best solution to Iraq is to begin now a steady, but sure, unilateral withdrawal under the rubric of “redeployment” — with sincere hopes that three years of our blood and treasure should have been enough to jumpstart democracy, and with even more sincere regrets if they have not. In short, Iraq has turned into an unfortunate, but predictable, fiasco, and it is time to cut it loose with as little blowback as possible.
Anti-Americanism in the Middle East and Europe is largely a phenomenon of George Bush’s idiosyncratic manners and his once-loud advocacy of preemption and unilateralism, particularly in March 2003. With his retirement, things will gradually settle down to the general equilibrium of the Bush I and Clinton eras.
There are indeed dangers on the horizon with nuclear proliferation, threats to wipe out Israel, and endemic terrorism. But as soon as the United States and the West are out of Iraq, become a neutral and honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians, and avoid gratuitous slurs against Islam (such as the pope’s unfortunate remarks or the needlessly hurtful Danish cartoons), our reputation will improve and Muslim hostility will subside — and with it any popular support for militants like Osama bin Laden.
The Minority Brief
We really are in a global war. Its dimensions are hard to conceptualize since our enemies, while aided and abetted by sympathetic Middle Eastern dictatorships, claim no national affinity. Indeed, the terrorists deliberately mask the role of their patrons. The latter, given understandable fears of the overwhelming conventional power of the United States military, deny culpability.
In an age of globalization and miniaturized weapons of mass destruction, it is even more difficult to convince Western publics that they may well face peril from state-sponsored terrorists every bit as great as what the Wehrmacht, Imperial Japan, or the Red Army once posed.
While there are regional theaters of conflict predicated on local grievances — as in the multiplicity of fighting during World War II in China, Ethiopia, Poland, Finland, France, North Africa, the Balkans, Russia, the Pacific, etc. — there is nevertheless once more a transnational ideology that seeks to force its worldviews on others.
Like fascism or Communism, Islamism galvanizes millions with its reductionist claims of Western liberal culpability for widely diverse Muslim gripes from Afghanistan to the West Bank. Rather than seeing a plethora of grievances that can be individually addressed, it is more valuable and accurate to understand the problem as a general complaint that in turn manifests itself in different regions and circumstances. While Cypriots or Tibetans don’t blow themselves up over lost land or honor, those energized with Islamist ideology often do. While Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist fundamentalists don’t appreciate popular culture mocking their religion, Islamists are the most likely to assassinate or threaten the novelist or cartoonist as the supposed blasphemer.
Islamic fascism exists, then, as a reactionary creed that sees traditional Islamic culture threatened with Western-inspired global liberalization and modernization. Drawing on the Middle East’s sense of misery and victimization by others, its narrative harkens back to a purer age.
Once upon a time, the truly devout defeated their enemies and lived a morally pure life under a caliphate of like believers. That universal rule of Islam is at last once more attainable — given the general decadence of the postmodern West, the illegitimacy and vulnerability of most Middle Eastern governments, and the simple fact that vast petroleum reserves, coupled with jihadist fervor, can be translated into militarily powerful, high-tech forces that will obtain superiority over the crusading infidel.
On the home front, demoralization and a sort of cultural relativism are far more worrisome than the Patriot Act and related measures. By the prior benchmarks of the wartime administrations of Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Nixon, these measures are relatively innocuous — and yet have done much to prevent another attack on the United States.
It was not the Patriot Act that banned operas, condemned cartoons, allowed films to be ostracized, or muzzled teachers, but Western self-censorship and fear. Jihadists brilliantly drew on boilerplate anti-Western arguments from Western elites, and when they recycled tired charges of imperialism, racism, and colonialism they found them surprisingly effective at undermining Western morale.
Furthermore, September 11 was no fluke, but the logical culmination of two disastrous prior American policies: appeasement and cynical realism.
By not responding to a decade of prior attacks in East Africa, New York, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and withdrawing ignominiously from Lebanon to Mogadishu, we gave the fatal impression that a terrorist could strike the United States with near impunity — given our addiction to the good life that we would not endanger at any cost. And by ignoring the abject failures of Middle East autocracies, we inadvertently ensured the second requisite to 9/11: dictatorial regimes that allowed terrorists free rein to scapegoat their own failures onto the infidel West.
The remedy, then, is to respond forcefully to terrorists and their sponsors, while simultaneously appealing to the people of the Islamic world that the United States is no longer cynically realist — but is actively working to promote consensual government throughout the region to address their lack of representation in their own affairs. That is not naiveté, but rather both the right and smart thing to do. Unlike the majority opinion that offers the chimera of stability through short-term expediency, the more costly, difficult, and ambitious minority view addresses conditions that more likely will lead to a lasting peace.
Iraq is far from lost, but in fact, despite the negative coverage, has a viable elected government that slogs on through the worst assaults imaginable. The coalition government includes all voices in the country. And that explains why, at least so far, there really is not a classic civil war in which one faction, with clearly defined goals of governance, tries to assume power, backed by substantial military force and broad public support.
The present strategy of Iraqization is the correct one, both for ethical and practical reasons. If we don’t withdraw precipitously, there is a good chance that Iraqi forces, and government flexibility, will eventually pacify Baghdad and its environs — where almost all the violence in the country is confined. Along with the stabilization of Afghanistan, and positive democratic developments in Lebanon, the Middle East is in flux, but with at least a chance of broad-based reform not seen in a half century.
Withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, while strategically and politically understandable, brought little commensurate peace to Israel. And while negotiations about borders are vital to a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a large number of the latter group believe that Israel itself can be unraveled through a mixture of terrorism, rocketry, and on-again-off-again diplomacy. Their real grievance against Israel is not so much its post-1967 retention of conquered land — there were 20 years of war prior to then — but its Westernized presence and daily example of success in a sea of failure. The pathologies of the Middle East were there prior to Israel, and will probably be enhanced rather than ameliorated by a sense of Israeli appeasement and American-induced concessions.
Finally, we are still one lax day away from another September 11, and will continue to be so until the currency and appeal of radical Islamism are history. Anti-Americanism can be crystallized by George Bush and his policies, but it was a pre-existing pathology that will survive long after he is gone — inasmuch as it is a symptom of a much larger malady: envy by the weaker of the world’s only hyperpower; ubiquity of intrusive globalized and destabilizing American popular culture; and the assurance that America, unlike a Russia or China, is sensitive to its critics and, indeed, often offers them the most sophisticated condemnations of its own values and traditions.
How to Judge?
Again, while there are variances, these are the general antitheses about our present war. The current majority view is slowing gaining ascendancy in policy-making circles. It reflects a general weariness on the part of the American people, who are daily bombarded with stories of anti-Americanism abroad, IED explosions in Iraq, and more mayhem on the West Bank. All that gloom and doom contributes to this feeling that we have already done enough, if not too much, and can, with more or less relative security, return to the status of the pre-September 11 world.
Like all wartime debates, the final arbiter will be the battlefield. If realist diplomacy, an end to the Bush Doctrine, withdrawal from Iraq, renewed pressure on Israel, and a rescinding of security measures can avoid another 9/11, prevent Middle East nuclear proliferation, deflate radical Islam’s appeal, and corral hostile regimes from gaining regional ascendancy, then the majority view may prove correct.
But if, on the other hand…well, you know the answer, and my own views on the matter.
©2006 Victor Davis Hanson