What’s It All About?

Playing high-stakes poker like never before.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The objectives and methods of the terrorists and ambushers in Iraq are not hard to fathom. Their strategy is twofold. First, if each week they can kill five to six Americans, along with inflicting a few million dollars in damage, they hope to weaken public opinion here at home to such a degree that we might precipitously withdraw and leave a Lebanonized Iraq to the law of the jungle: bad for everyone else, good for them.

The drop in support for the war in public-opinion polls here suggests that this is not a far-fetched premise — especially when, in an age of CNN and al Jazeera, the split-second image of a burning Humvee trumps a dry, three-minute explanation of how, after five months, the present reconstruction is, in fact, on track at a rate far more impressive than similar past efforts in Japan or Germany.

Second, the killers’ ostensible appeal to the Iraqis appears contradictory, but in fact is not necessarily therein illogical. By slaying Iraqi reconstructionists and fraying the fabric of infrastructure, they hope to make life so miserable for the citizenry that it will urge the Americans to leave, in hopes the attacks will at least stop (“Give us Saddam if it means order”). And as “brave” jihadists and nationalists who drove the Americans out, the bushwhackers expect to acquire a sick sort of admiration from the very innocents they are hurting — in the manner of Hamas, whose suicide bombing has ruined the Palestine economy, but earned them heroic status nonetheless.

This war of tactics does not go on in a void. There is a larger strategic history and landscape to be considered as well. Our enemies fathom fully — if American pundits and professors cannot — the Western way of war, the lethality of which makes conventional opposition to an American military force on the field of battle tantamount to suicide. Thus the terrorists grant the success of U.S. efforts in a Panama, Serbia, Kuwait, and Iraq, but prefer to look instead to the messes of the last twenty years in Iran, Beirut, Mogadishu, and Haiti, concluding that there are still other ways to stifle the Americans. In other words, they see the war not in terms of power — ours is far greater — but of will, as a struggle in which we, for a variety of reasons, will not bring to bear all the resources that we can.

In all these wretched places, hostage-taking, assassination, suicide bombing, and general chaos wore down the American people, who quickly thought such commitments were too dirty, too humiliating, and light years away from the world of Starbucks and Moby. And out of such American disenchantment came withdrawal or subsequent appeasement. Thus arose the present emboldened strategy of Middle Eastern armed opposition to the West.

We have seen the latest strains of it on the West Bank the last few years, among killers who would never meet the Israeli Defense Forces in battle, but are still determined to ensure through bombs, rat poison, and nails that no Israeli with a bare navel or pierced ear will have the leisure to sip a latte or café mocha as long as terrorists and jihadidsts have to watch such leisure and affluence in their self-inflicted misery. (Note that when Israel finally struck back at the central nervous system of Hamas, its middle-aged jihadist masterminds were not so eager to find martyrdom after all, but usually perished on the run and in hiding, relegating the glory of exploding bodies to their own youngsters.)

Again, the logic of it all is straightforward. Democratic liberal societies (terror seems always to be directed at liberal states, which threaten autocracies and tribes) have created so much material comfort and liberty that they purportedly abhor sacrifice and any potential interruptions of the good life, whether material, spiritual, or psychic. Thus they are willing to appease, tolerate, or ignore terror, preferring instead — after the obligatory cruise missile and saber-rattling speech — to pay some type of blackmail, grant some type of political concession, or simply vacate the premises. And our enemies are right — if the embassies in Africa, the Iran hostage-taking, the Beirut bombing, the USS Coleattack, and a host of other assaults on assorted individual Americans, embassies, planes, and ships are any indications.

Their devilish methods are entirely parasitic. Hamas or the Baathists can no more craft on their own an RPG, a tactical missile, or a nuclear weapon than they can build a cell phone or a Honda. Uday’s stash of pills and cars was the logical counterpart to Saddam’s imported arsenal — Western material goods without the inconvenient cargo that was responsible for their creation, whether democracy, rationalism, secularism, or individual freedom.

What then are the ultimate aims of terrorists and state killers? What exactly does a crackpot Iranian mullah, a crazed Taliban, the sons of Saddam, or one of bin Laden’s executioners really want with us? A sort of alternative existence to the West, upon which they both feed and prey, like some sort of toadstool that, with sufficient rain and neglect, sprouts up amid an otherwise lush green lawn.

Bin Laden (construction money), the Husseins (oil money), or the Taliban (drug revenues) all found ways to buy appurtenances of the good life from the West, even as they imported weapons to kill us, and crafted terrorist strategies to keep us from interfering in their kleptocracies or primordial theocracies, spinning myths all the while about a glorious Dark Age past or a sensuous paradise to come.

Whether terrorists are true Islamic fascists right out of the ninth-century or goofy modernist killers like Saddam, the Assads, or Khadaffis, their methods are the same, and their hatred of the West similar. Both count on an illiterate and impoverished citizenry — that famed Middle East Street whose misery-driven fury can always be deflected by a parade of shiny imported missiles, a blood-curdling lie about the Jews, or a half-educated rant about some American-inspired conspiracy to infect the water or carry off their women.

Indeed, these pathological Middle East killers have discovered that there are really only two ways to plunder or extort from a fat, complacent West. You can do it with low-grade terror — in the manner that a parasitic tick or flea feeds on a sleeping dog. Or you craft weapons of mass destruction that threaten not just American professional soldiers but the American public as well — as we have seen from North Korea’s extortion of ample stocks of food, fuel, and attention. Preferably, rogue regimes aim at both: hence the Iranian dual policy of funding Hezbollah while stealthily making a bomb.

Again, the entire strategy is predicated on the assurance that societies such as our own will never make the needed sacrifice or pay the costly preemptive price in lives and treasure — not when appeasement, writing checks, and blackmail are so much easier and cheaper, and so often work, at least in the short term. Wesley Clark himself said as much in his now-infamous Little Rock speech of May 11, 2001, where he seemingly praised the present administration for arresting the drift of the past.

Yet in the present struggle, our enemies made three critical mistakes that have for the time being upset their otherwise brilliant plans. First, September 11 woke Americans up to the danger of parasitic terrorism from the Middle East and the larger realization that there might be even easier ways of leveling a Manhattan block than crashing planes into skyscrapers. So 9/11 taught us that the will to kill all of us was certainly there — our only reprieve for the moment being the inability of the enemy to trump what they had begun. In response to such cataclysmic damage on that terrible September day, Americans were willing to question the old political calculus of appeasement, at least for a while, and realized that recklessness was not bombing the Taliban or marching on Baghdad, but the old mantra of “sending a stern message” and “keeping Hussein in his box.”

Second, President Bush, whatever one thinks of him, is, well, let’s face it, a strange sort of president. For all the hysteria about Karl Rove’s supposed political calculations and machinations, I sense that the president doesn’t care much what others think of him; indeed, for the price of winning this war he might even be willing to be a one-term president. In other words, this is a man who probably would not have withdrawn from Beirut, turned ships around off the harbor at Haiti at the sound of gunfire, or yanked Americans from Somalia as two-bit thugs dragged their corpses in the street.

For some reason or another he does not seem to crave future rave reviews from the New York Times, a late-night private dinner in Georgetown, or an obsequious phone call from a European apparatchik. Indeed, he seems to have expected the invective from the Europeans, the slander from our own media, and even the irrational, if not visceral, hatred of American elites as the inevitable wages that come with at last saying “enough is enough” and thereby dissolving in a moment the comfortable fraud that so many of us had invested so heavily in the last 20 years. How long his resistance will last in the face of slander and slurs of historic proportions is unclear; but for now he has again responded in a manner that his enemies would never have anticipated.

Third, the bin Ladens, Taliban remnants, and Saddamites figured that Americans knew only the Western way of war, or more precisely that we fielded only some sort of big clumsy Vietnam-era, tank-driven army. Few figured that GPS bombing, counterinsurgency, special operatives, and our own sniping and raiding could allow us too to wage a low-intensity war, as now is going on in the Sunni Triangle. And unlike the Russians in Chechnya, Americans have the capital to fund largess, the message of freedom, and the strategy of resolute mercy that give the U.S. a much better chance at winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, the key, after all, of any unconventional fighting. Once more, the critical question is not strength, but determination: If the American people decide that they truly wish to rid Baghdad of the Baathists and pacify Iraq and Afghanistan under the auspices of consensual governments, then they most surely can.

So here we have the stakes in this last, big hand of Middle East poker. Our enemies are betting that our very freedom, affluence, raucous democratic politics, and shoot-from-the hip media will still prove true to form and thus, sooner or later, we will quit — especially as an election nears and the memory of 3,000 incinerated Americans fades.

In contrast, Mr. Bush’s hunch is that the tragedy of September changed us all, and his own resoluteness will prove the better hand. In other words, as polls drop and sunshine supporters fold, he senses that America — and with it civilization — will still win, and in a very big way, thus ending for good this awful contest of the last quarter-century.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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