The language of democratic confidence, not fear of terrorism, is needed
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Top officials of our government warn that another terrorist attack of the magnitude of September 11 is “inevitable” and “is coming” in the near future. Such realistic prognoses about everything from germs to dirty bombs are perhaps understandable to counter complacency in the mostly domestic quiet of the past ten months since the suicide murdering. The idea is that if and when the blow comes, Americans will purportedly shrug that they have had no illusions about the fragility of their security, and will be less likely to engage in recriminations. Wayward and negligent bureaucrats, of course, can then pronounce “I told you so” — as if the human endeavor of committing terrorism was more a natural phenomenon, an act of God of sorts that people can neither foresee nor prevent.
Yet in a time of war there are also disadvantages in the language of such calculated pessimism. The cumulative effect of dire warnings is a growing — and enervating — despair among our citizens, who insidiously lose confidence in the skill and verve of their leaders. Are we then quite fatalistically to accept that Americans are in a huge lottery of death — each of us in the near future hopelessly fated to being vaporized or incinerated by superhuman enemies in our own doomed plane, train, or stadium to come?
Far better for the national psyche it would be for our president or Cabinet officials to proclaim something like, “We pledge to make sure there are no more September 11ths — but if we are wrong, let the world know that this time the consequences for those who committed or abetted such murder are going to be too terrible to contemplate.” If our leaders genuinely feel it is disingenuous to promise a safety that they cannot with some certainty ensure, then at least let them convey some emotion — even if it is cloaked in the language of wrath and revenge. Great leaders from Pericles to Churchill realized the power of righteous indignation and the issuing of threats that they could and would follow through on.
By the same token, the public is not so blinkered that it cannot grasp a few basic elements of American foreign policy. Americans have a growing unease with Mr. Musharref, the dictator from Pakistan, who overthrew an elected government, allowed his intelligence agency and indeed his entire country to be hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists, and will now not rule out a first-strike nuclear attack against the world’s largest democracy. They also have problems with the Saudis and Egyptians, whose citizens butchered our own, whose leaders constantly lecture the United States about our policy in the Middle East, and whose governments are as illegitimate and autocratic as they are corrupt.
We are not dumb; we understand the calculus of Realpolitik — both the need not to provoke gratuitously such dictatorships that claim that they are tracking down terrorists, and the awareness that elections could usher in fundamentalists who would only shut down the very democratic machinery that brought them to power. That being said, however, we still thirst for some sort of democratic transcendence — some small hint that we are defeating the terrorists for some larger and more lasting purpose. We fought Japan not just to bring justice to the killers of Pearl Harbor, but to end the idea of a military dictatorship in Japan itself — for its people’s interests as well as ours.
So we still need to be told that our war against terror is not simply reactive and solely military in nature, but in fact is part of a larger effort to alter the very moral landscape — social, economic, and political — that allows terrorists to flourish. Americans need to be reminded again and again that we support both Israel and India not solely because they oppose terrorism, but because they do so under the aegis of democracy. Our war is not America against the terrorists, but rather a democracy’s struggle against dictatorships, gangs, thugs, and tyrants.
That democratic litmus allows us not to be kept in the dark as to the degree of support we are supposed to lend to despotic regimes in the Middle East based on their alleged — or even occasionally concrete — efforts in hunting down terrorists. Is the Mubaracracy in Egypt friendly, moderate, an ally, neutral, or an enemy? And on what criteria? And who says, and when and why? It is nice because it receives our best tanks to be used against — whom? Since most of its citizens do not blowup American skyscrapers with us in them? That Egypt does not threaten Israel overtly? That a minority of its citizens tells pollsters they like Americans? Any, all, or none of the above?
And are the oil potentates in the Gulf with us or against us — complicit in the spread of terror or aghast at its consequences? Do they ride over a restive populace yearning for secular education, elections, and a free press — or a people ever more eager to return to the Middle Ages, in which gender apartheid, floggings, amputations, and polygamy can be practiced without censure?
Let us allow the public to forego the suspense and simply conclude that these regimes are all unfree and undemocratic, and so the ways in which they profess assistance will be forever couched in acts that are contradictory, hypocritical, and capricious — as any government must whose policy of day-to-day survival is always held captive by the terror of the frenzied but unfree Arab Street.
Such predictable and logical support for democracy would have a number of salutary effects almost immediately. It would lend a steadiness and coherence to America’s struggle that transcends religion or crass self-interest, affirming that the people of the United States supports the aspirations of anyone among 500 million Muslims in the Middle East who seeks freedom and democracy. It provides uniformity to our policy vis — vis Afghanistan and Iraq; the logic for our military action in both cases is not merely retribution — a good enough reason in itself — but also to metamorphosize the area’s worst regimes into those with the most potential for eventual democratic evolution.
Finally, democratic rhetoric is pragmatic and offers an ironic repartee to the train of Middle Eastern “moderates” who file into Washington, promising us assistance in private, but in public remonstrating and posturing against the United States for public consumption among their captive audiences back home. We should tell all of them — the assorted kings, sheiks, princes, and strongmen alike — that we favor the democratization of their countries and the fulfillment of their own people’s innate desire for freedom. That way we can far better manipulate their own public opinion than they ours — possessing as we do not guile or the arts of triangulation, but the simple power of timeless ideas.
The next time President Bush stands at a dais next to a Jordanian King, a Kuwaiti prince, or an Egyptian strongman, he should not have to endure the old empty advice from despots on Middle East reforms, elections, and timetables that is as irrelevant as it is hypocritical. Let him instead shoot back — without warning and without worry:
We are now in a great hunt to track and defeat the fleeing and scattered agents of terror. But we also are in a more profound and difficult struggle than this necessary burden of bringing to justice individual murderers and ending the enclaves that fostered their evil. For we shall never have peace in this conflict; we shall never obtain real justice from those who have aided and abetted our enemies, until we can ensure that all governments pledge to their peoples the creation of open and humane societies — ultimately the only conditions under which free and vigilant citizens themselves can ensure that terrorism dies and is buried.
Our powerful military can and will end all those who planned the murder of our 3,000 on September 11. But out of that great evil, we can also promise the fallen that they were the catalysts for some far greater good — that they did not die in vain, but, in fact, their sacrifice was the beginning of something noble that will soon shake the very foundations of the world as we have known it. Let us remake our relationships with the states of the region into something far different and far better from those existing before September 11 — and so thereby keep faith with the dead now by a simple pact: “If you are a terrorist and kill Americans — you will suffer our terrible and swift justice. If you are a state who aids terrorists — you will experience war and wreckage undreamed of for the wickedness you have wrought. And if you are a nation of the Middle East, whose people are not free, whose media are censored, and whose elections are fraudulent, then you also have proved to be an indirect agent and abettor of this new plague — and so you too shall soon have a rendezvous with the American people and their wrath.”
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson