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The Fruits of Appeasement By: Victor Davis Hanson
City Journal | Friday, April 23, 2004


Imagine a different November 4, 1979, in Teheran. Shortly after Iranian terrorists storm the American embassy and take some 90 American hostages, President Jimmy Carter announces that Islamic fundamentalism is not a legitimate response to the excess of the Shah but a new and dangerous fascism that threatens all that liberal society holds dear. And then he issues an ultimatum to Teheran’s leaders: Release the captives or face a devastating military response.

When that demand is not met, instead of freezing Iran’s assets, stopping the importation of its oil, or seeking support at the UN, Carter orders an immediate blockade of the country, followed by promises to bomb, first, all of its major military assets, and then its main government buildings and residences of its ruling mullocracy. The Ayatollah Khomeini may well have called his bluff; we may well have tragically lost the hostages (151 fewer American lives than the Iranian-backed Hezbollah would take four years later in a single day in Lebanon). And there may well have been the sort of chaos in Teheran that we now witness in Baghdad. But we would have seen it all in 1979—and not in 2001, after almost a quarter-century of continuous Middle East terrorism, culminating in the mass murder of 3,000 Americans and the leveling of the World Trade Center.

The twentieth century should have taught the citizens of liberal democracies the catastrophic consequences of placating tyrants. British and French restraint over the occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the absorption of the Czech Sudetenland, and the incorporation of Bohemia and Moravia did not win gratitude but rather Hitler’s contempt for their weakness. Fifty million dead, the Holocaust, and the near destruction of European civilization were the wages of “appeasement”—a term that early-1930s liberals proudly embraced as far more enlightened than the old idea of “deterrence” and “military readiness.”

So too did Western excuses for the Russians’ violation of guarantees of free elections in postwar Eastern Europe, China, and Southeast Asia only embolden the Soviet Union. What eventually contained Stalinism was the Truman Doctrine, NATO, and nuclear deterrence—not the United Nations—and what destroyed its legacy was Ronald Reagan’s assertiveness, not Jimmy Carter’s accommodation or Richard Nixon’s détente.

As long ago as the fourth century b.c., Demosthenes warned how complacency and self-delusion among an affluent and free Athenian people allowed a Macedonian thug like Philip II to end some four centuries of Greek liberty—and in a mere 20 years of creeping aggrandizement down the Greek peninsula. Thereafter, these historical lessons should have been clear to citizens of any liberal society: we must neither presume that comfort and security are our birthrights and are guaranteed without constant sacrifice and vigilance, nor expect that peoples outside the purview of bourgeois liberalism share our commitment to reason, tolerance, and enlightened self-interest.

Most important, military deterrence and the willingness to use force against evil in its infancy usually end up, in the terrible arithmetic of war, saving more lives than they cost. All this can be a hard lesson to relearn each generation, especially now that we contend with the sirens of the mall, Oprah, and latte. Our affluence and leisure are as antithetical to the use of force as rural life and relative poverty once were catalysts for muscular action. The age-old lure of appeasement—perhaps they will cease with this latest concession, perhaps we provoked our enemies, perhaps demonstrations of our future good intentions will win their approval—was never more evident than in the recent Spanish elections, when an affluent European electorate, reeling from the horrific terrorist attack of 3/11, swept from power the pro-U.S. center-right government on the grounds that the mass murders were more the fault of the United States for dragging Spain into the effort to remove fascists and implant democracy in Iraq than of the primordial al-Qaidist culprits, who long ago promised the Western and Christian Iberians ruin for the Crusades and the Reconquista.

What went wrong with the West—and with the United States in particular—when not just the classical but especially the recent antecedents to September 11, from the Iranian hostage-taking to the attack on the USS Cole, were so clear? Though Americans in an election year, legitimately concerned about our war dead, may now be divided over the Iraqi occupation, polls nevertheless show a surprising consensus that the many precursors to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings were acts of war, not police matters. Roll the tape backward from the USS Cole in 2000, through the bombing of the Khobar Towers and the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the destruction of the American embassy and annex in Beirut in 1983, the mass murder of 241 U.S. Marine peacekeepers asleep in their Lebanese barracks that same year, and assorted kidnappings and gruesome murders of American citizens and diplomats (including TWA Flight 800, Pan Am 103, William R. Higgins, Leon Klinghoffer, Robert Dean Stethem, and CIA operative William Francis Buckley), until we arrive at the Iranian hostage-taking of November 1979: that debacle is where we first saw the strange brew of Islamic fascism, autocracy, and Middle East state terrorism—and failed to grasp its menace, condemn it, and go to war against it.

That lapse, worth meditating upon in this 25th anniversary year of Khomeinism, then set the precedent that such aggression against the United States was better adjudicated as a matter of law than settled by war. Criminals were to be understood, not punished; and we, not our enemies, were at fault for our past behavior. Whether Carter’s impotence sprang from his deep-seated moral distrust of using American power unilaterally or from real remorse over past American actions in the cold war or even from his innate pessimism about the military capability of the United States mattered little to the hostage takers in Teheran, who for some 444 days humiliated the United States through a variety of public demands for changes in U.S. foreign policy, the return of the exiled Shah, and reparations.

But if we know how we failed to respond in the last three decades, do we yet grasp why we were so afraid to act decisively at these earlier junctures, which might have stopped the chain of events that would lead to the al-Qaida terrorist acts of September 11? Our failure was never due to a lack of the necessary wealth or military resources, but rather to a deeply ingrained assumption that we should not retaliate—a hesitancy al-Qaida perceives and plays upon.

Along that sad succession of provocations, we can look back and see particularly critical turning points that reflected this now-institutionalized state policy of worrying more about what the enemy was going to do to us than we to him, to paraphrase Grant’s dictum: not hammering back after the murder of the marines in Lebanon for fear of ending up like the Israelis in a Lebanese quagmire; not going to Baghdad in 1991 because of paranoia that the “coalition” would collapse and we would polarize the Arabs; pulling abruptly out of Somalia once pictures of American bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu were broadcast around the world; or turning down offers in 1995 from Sudan to place Usama bin Ladin into our custody, for fear that U.S. diplomats or citizens might be murdered abroad.

Throughout this tragic quarter-century of appeasement, our response usually consisted of a stern lecture by a Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, or Bill Clinton about “never giving in to terrorist blackmail” and “not negotiating with terrorists.” Even Ronald Reagan’s saber-rattling “You can run but not hide” did not preclude trading arms to the Iranian terrorists or abruptly abandoning Lebanon after the horrific Hezbollah attack.

Sometimes a half-baked failed rescue mission, or a battleship salvo, cruise missile, or air strike followed—but always accompanied by a weeklong debate by conservatives over “exit strategies” and “mission creep,” while liberals fretted about “consultations with our allies and the United Nations.” And remember: these pathetic military responses were the hawkish actions that earned us the resignation of a furious Cyrus Vance, the abrogation of overflight rights by concerned “allies” such as France, and a national debate about what we did to cause such animosity in the first place.

Our enemies and Middle Eastern “friends” alike sneered at our self-flagellation. In 1991, at great risk, the United States freed Kuwait from Iraq and ended its status as the 19th satrapy of Saddam Hussein—only to watch the restored kingdom ethnically cleanse over a third of a million Palestinians. But after the murder of 3,000 Americans in 2001, Kuwaitis, in a February 2002 Gallup poll (and while they lobbied OPEC to reduce output and jack up prices), revealed an overwhelming distaste for Americans—indeed the highest levels of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. And these ethnic cleansers of Palestinians cited America’s purportedly unfair treatment of the Palestinians (recipients of accumulated billions in American aid) as a prime cause of their dislike of us.

In the face of such visceral anti-Americanism, the problem may not be real differences over the West Bank, much less that “we are not getting the message out”; rather, in the decade since 1991 the Middle East saw us as a great power that neither could nor would use its strength to advance its ideas—that lacked even the intellectual confidence to argue for our civilization before the likes of a tenth-century monarchy. The autocratic Arab world neither respects nor fears a democratic United States, because it rightly senses that we often talk in principled terms but rarely are willing to invest the time, blood, and treasure to match such rhetoric with concrete action. That’s why it is crucial for us to stay in Iraq to finish the reconstruction and cement the achievement of our three-week victory over Saddam.

It is easy to cite post-Vietnam guilt and shame as the likely culprit for our paralysis. After all, Jimmy Carter came in when memories of capsizing boat people and of American helicopters lifting swarms of panicked diplomats off the roof of the Saigon embassy were fresh. In 1980, he exited in greater shame: his effusive protestations that Soviet communism wasn’t something to fear all that much won him the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while his heralded “human rights” campaign was answered by the Ortegas in Nicaragua and the creation of a murderous theocracy in Iran. Yet perhaps President Carter was not taking the American people anywhere they didn’t want to go. After over a decade of prior social unrest and national humiliation in Vietnam, many Americans believed that the United States either could not or should not do much about things beyond its shores.

As time wore on and the nightmare of Vietnam began to fade, fear of the Soviet Union kept us from crushing the terrorists who killed our diplomats and blew up our citizens. These were no idle fears, given the Russians’ record of butchering 30 million of their own, stationing 300 divisions on Europe’s borders, and pointing 7,000 nukes at the United States. And fear of their malevolence made eminent sense in the volatile Middle East, where the Russians made direct threats to the Israelis in both the 1967 and 1973 wars, when the Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi militaries—trained, supplied, and advised by Russians—were on the verge of annihilation. Russian support for Nasser’s Pan-Arabism and for Baathism in Iraq and Syria rightly worried cold warriors, who sensed that the Soviets had their geopolitical eyes on Middle East oil and a stranglehold over Persian Gulf commerce.

Indeed, these twin pillars of the old American Middle East policy—worry over oil and fear of communists—reigned for nearly half a century, between 1945 and 1991. Such realism, however understandable, was counterproductive in the long run, since our tacit support for odious anti-communist governments in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and North Africa did not address the failure of such autocracies to provide prosperity and hope for exploding populations of increasingly poor and angry citizens. We kept Russians out of the oil fields and ensured safe exports of petroleum to Europe, Japan, and the United States—but at what proved to be the steep price of allowing awful regimes to deflect popular discontent against us.

Nor was realpolitik always effective. Such illegitimate Arab regimes as the Saudi royal family initiated several oil embargoes, after all. And meanwhile, such a policy did not deter the Soviets from busily selling high-tech weaponry to Libya, Syria, and Iraq, while the KGB helped to train and fund almost every Arab terrorist group. And indeed, immediately after the 1991 Iraqi takeover of Kuwait, U.S. intelligence officers discovered that Soviet-trained Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, and Abu Ibrahim had flocked to Baghdad on the invitation of the Baathist Saddam Hussein: though the Soviet Union did not interrupt Western petroleum commerce, its well-supplied surrogates did their fair share of murdering.

Neither thirst for petroleum nor fear of communists, then, adequately explains our inaction for most of the tumultuous late 1980s and 1990s, when groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaida came on to the world scene. Gorbachev’s tottering empire had little inclination to object too strenuously when the United States hit Libya in 1986, recall, and thanks to the growing diversity and fungibility of the global oil supply, we haven’t had a full-fledged Arab embargo since 1979.

Instead, the primary cause for our surprising indifference to the events leading up to September 11 lies within ourselves. Westerners always have had a propensity for complacency because of our wealth and freedom; and Americans in particular have enjoyed a comfortable isolation in being separated from the rest of the world by two oceans. Yet during the last four presidential administrations, laxity about danger on the horizon seems to have become more ingrained than in the days when a more robust United States sought to thwart communist intrusion into Arabia, Asia, and Africa.

Americans never viewed terrorist outlaw states with the suspicion they once had toward Soviet communism; they put little pressure on their leaders to crack down on Middle Eastern autocracy and theocracy as a threat to security. At first this indifference was understandable, given the stealthy nature of our enemies and the post–cold war relief that, having toppled the Soviet Union and freed millions in Eastern Europe, we might be at the end of history. Even the bloodcurdling anti-American shouts from the Beirut street did not seem as scary as a procession of intercontinental missiles and tanks on an average May Day parade in Moscow.

Hezbollah, al-Qaida, and the PLO were more like fleas on a sleeping dog: bothersome rather than lethal; to be flicked away occasionally rather than systematically eradicated. Few paid attention to Usama bin Ladin’s infamous February 1998 fatwa: “The rule to kill Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is a sacred duty for any Muslim.” Those who noticed thought it just impotent craziness, akin to Sartre’s fatuous quip during the Vietnam War that he wished for a nuclear strike against the United States to end its imperial aspirations. No one thought that a raving maniac in an Afghan cave could kill more Americans in a single day than the planes of the Japanese imperial fleet off Pearl Harbor.

But still, how did things as odious to liberal sensibilities as Pan-Arabism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Middle Eastern dictatorship—which squashed dissent, mocked religious tolerance, and treated women as chattel—become reinvented into “alternate discourses” deserving a sympathetic pass from the righteous anger of the United States when Americans were murdered overseas? Was it that spokesmen for terrorist regimes mimicked the American Left—in everything from dress, vocabulary, and appearances on the lecture circuit—and so packaged their extremism in a manner palatable to Americans? Why, after all, were Americans patient with remonstrations from University of Virginia alumna Hanan Ashrawi, rather than asking precisely how such a wealthy Christian PLO apparatchik really felt about the Palestinian Authority’s endemic corruption, the spendthrift Parisian Mrs. Arafat, the terrorists around Arafat himself, the spate of “honor killings” of women in the West Bank, the censorship of the Palestinian press, suicide murdering by Arafat affiliates, and the lynching of suspects by Palestinian police?

Rather than springing from realpolitik, sloth, or fear of oil cutoffs, much of our appeasement of Middle Eastern terrorists derived from a new sort of anti-Americanism that thrived in the growing therapeutic society of the 1980s and 1990s. Though the abrupt collapse of communism was a dilemma for the Left, it opened as many doors as it shut. To be sure, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, few Marxists could argue for a state-controlled economy or mouth the old romance about a workers’ paradise—not with scenes of East German families crammed into smoking clunkers lumbering over potholed roads, like American pioneers of old on their way west. But if the creed of the socialist republics was impossible to take seriously in either economic or political terms, such a collapse of doctrinaire statism did not discredit the gospel of forced egalitarianism and resentment against prosperous capitalists. Far from it.

If Marx receded from economics departments, his spirit reemerged among our intelligentsia in the novel guises of post-structuralism, new historicism, multiculturalism, and all the other dogmas whose fundamental tenet was that white male capitalists had systematically oppressed women, minorities, and Third World people in countless insidious ways. The font of that collective oppression, both at home and abroad, was the rich, corporate, Republican, and white United States.

The fall of the Soviet Union enhanced these newer post-colonial and liberation fields of study by immunizing their promulgators from charges of fellow-traveling or being dupes of Russian expansionism. Communism’s demise likewise freed these trendy ideologies from having to offer some wooden, unworkable Marxist alternative to the West; thus they could happily remain entirely critical, sarcastic, and cynical without any obligation to suggest something better, as witness the nihilist signs at recent protest marches proclaiming: “I Love Iraq, Bomb Texas.”

From writers like Arundhati Roy and Michel Foucault (who anointed Khomeini “a kind of mystic saint” who would usher in a new “political spirituality” that would “transfigure” the world) and from old standbys like Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre (“to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time”), there filtered down a vague notion that the United States and the West in general were responsible for Third World misery in ways that transcended the dull old class struggle. Endemic racism and the legacy of colonialism, the oppressive multinational corporation and the humiliation and erosion of indigenous culture brought on by globalization and a smug, self-important cultural condescension—all this and more explained poverty and despair, whether in Damascus, Teheran, or Beirut.

There was victim status for everybody, from gender, race, and class at home to colonialism, imperialism, and hegemony abroad. Anyone could play in these “area studies” that cobbled together the barrio, the West Bank, and the “freedom fighter” into some sloppy global union of the oppressed—a far hipper enterprise than rehashing Das Kapital or listening to a six-hour harangue from Fidel.

Of course, pampered Western intellectuals since Diderot have always dreamed up a “noble savage,” who lived in harmony with nature precisely because of his distance from the corruption of Western civilization. But now this fuzzy romanticism had an updated, political edge: the bearded killer and wild-eyed savage were not merely better than we because they lived apart in a pre-modern landscape. No: they had a right to strike back and kill modernizing Westerners who had intruded into and disrupted their better world—whether Jews on Temple Mount, women in Westernized dress in Teheran, Christian missionaries in Kabul, capitalist profiteers in Islamabad, whiskey-drinking oilmen in Riyadh, or miniskirted tourists in Cairo.

An Ayatollah Khomeini who turned back the clock on female emancipation in Iran, who murdered non-Muslims, and who refashioned Iranian state policy to hunt down, torture, and kill liberals nevertheless seemed to liberal Western eyes as preferable to the Shah—a Western-supported anti-communist, after all, who was engaged in the messy, often corrupt task of bringing Iran from the tenth to the twentieth century, down the arduous, dangerous path that, as in Taiwan or South Korea, might eventually lead to a consensual, capitalist society like our own.

Yet in the new world of utopian multiculturalism and knee-jerk anti-Americanism, in which a Noam Chomsky could proclaim Khomeini’s gulag to be “independent nationalism,” reasoned argument was futile. Indeed, how could critical debate arise for those “committed to social change,” when no universal standards were to be applied to those outside the West? Thanks to the doctrine of cultural relativism, “oppressed” peoples either could not be judged by our biased and “constructed” values (“false universals,” in Edward Said’s infamous term) or were seen as more pristine than ourselves, uncorrupted by the evils of Western capitalism.

Who were we to gainsay Khomeini’s butchery and oppression? We had no way of understanding the nuances of his new liberationist and “nationalist” Islam. Now back in the hands of indigenous peoples, Iran might offer the world an alternate path, a different “discourse” about how to organize a society that emphasized native values (of some sort) over mere profit.

So at precisely the time of these increasingly frequent terrorist attacks, the silly gospel of multiculturalism insisted that Westerners have neither earned the right to censure others, nor do they possess the intellectual tools to make judgments about the relative value of different cultures. And if the initial wave of multiculturalist relativism among the elites—coupled with the age-old romantic forbearance for Third World roguery—explained tolerance for early unpunished attacks on Americans, its spread to our popular culture only encouraged more.

This nonjudgmentalism—essentially a form of nihilism—deemed everything from Sudanese female circumcision to honor killings on the West Bank merely “different” rather than odious. Anyone who has taught freshmen at a state university can sense the fuzzy thinking of our undergraduates: most come to us prepped in high schools not to make “value judgments” about “other” peoples who are often “victims” of American “oppression.” Thus, before female-hating psychopath Mohamed Atta piloted a jet into the World Trade Center, neither Western intellectuals nor their students would have taken him to task for what he said or condemned him as hypocritical for his parasitical existence on Western society. Instead, without logic but with plenty of romance, they would more likely have excused him as a victim of globalization or of the biases of American foreign policy. They would have deconstructed Atta’s promotion of anti-Semitic, misogynist, Western-hating thought, as well as his conspiracies with Third World criminals, as anything but a danger and a pathology to be remedied by deportation or incarceration.

It was not for nothing that on November 17, 1979—less than two weeks after the militants stormed the American embassy in Teheran—the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the release of 13 female and black hostages, singling them out as part of the brotherhood of those oppressed by the United States and cloaking his ongoing slaughter of Iranian opponents and attacks on United States sovereignty in a self-righteous anti-Americanism. Twenty-five years later, during the anti-war protests of last spring, a group called “Act Now to Stop War and End Racism” sang the same foolish chorus in its call for demonstrations: “Members of the Muslim Community, Antiwar Activists, Latin-American Solidarity Groups and People From All Over the United States Unite to Say: ‘We Are All Palestinians!’ ”

The new cult of romantic victimhood became gospel in most Middle East departments in American universities. Except for the courageous Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, and Fouad Ajami, few scholars offered any analysis that might confirm more astute Americans in their vague sense that in the Middle East, political autocracy, statism, tribalism, anti-intellectualism, and gender apartheid accounted for poverty and failure. And if few wished to take on Islamofascism in the 1990s—indeed, Steven Emerson’s chilling 1994 documentary Jihad in America set off a storm of protest from U.S. Muslim-rights groups and prompted death threats to the producer—almost no one but Samuel Huntington dared even to broach the taboo subject that there might be elements within doctrinaire Islam itself that could easily lead to intolerance and violence and were therefore at the root of any “clash of civilizations.”

Instead, most experts explained why violent fanatics might have some half-legitimate grievance behind their deadly harvest each year of a few Americans in the wrong place at the wrong time. These experts cautioned that, instead of bombing and shooting killers abroad who otherwise would eventually reach us at home, Americans should take care not to disturb Iranian terrorists during Ramadan—rather than to remember that Muslims attacked Israel precisely during that holy period. Instead of condemning Wahhabis for the fascists that they were, we were instead apprised that such holy men of the desert and tent provided a rapidly changing and often Western-corrupted Saudi Arabia with a vital tether to the stability of its romantic nomadic past. Rather than recognizing that Yasser Arafat’s Tunisia-based Fatah organization was a crime syndicate, expert opinion persuaded us to empower it as an indigenous liberation movement on the West Bank—only to destroy nearly two decades’ worth of steady Palestinian economic improvement.

Neither oil-concerned Republicans nor multicultural Democrats were ready to expose the corrupt American relationship with Saudi Arabia. No country is more culpable than that kingdom in funding extremist madrassas and subsidizing terror, or more antithetical to liberal American values from free speech to religious tolerance. But Saudi propagandists learned from the Palestinians the value of constructing their own victimhood as a long-oppressed colonial people. Call a Saudi fundamentalist mullah a fascist, and you can be sure you’ll be tarred as an Islamophobe.

Even when Middle Easterners regularly blew us up, the Clinton administration, unwilling to challenge the new myth of Muslim victimhood, transformed Middle Eastern terrorists bent on destroying America into wayward individual criminals who did not spring from a pathological culture. Thus, Clinton treated the first World Trade Center bombing as only a criminal justice matter—which of course allowed the United States to avoid confronting the issue and taking on the messy and increasingly unpopular business the Bush administration has been engaged in since September 11. Clinton dispatched FBI agents, not soldiers, to Yemen and Saudi Arabia after the attacks on the USS Cole and the Khobar Towers. Yasser Arafat, responsible in the 1970s for the murder of a U.S. diplomat in the Sudan, turned out to be the most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton Oval Office.

If the Clintonian brand of appeasement reflected both a deep-seated tolerance for Middle Eastern extremism and a reluctance to wake comfortable Americans up to the danger of a looming war, he was not the only one naive about the threat of Islamic fascism. Especially culpable was the Democratic Party at large, whose post-Vietnam foreign policy could not sanction the use of American armed force to protect national interests but only to accomplish purely humanitarian ends as in the interventions in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia.

Indeed, the recent Democratic primaries reveal just how far this disturbing trend has evolved: the foreign-policy positions of John Kerry and Howard Dean on Iraq and the Middle East were far closer to those of extremists like Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich than to current American policy under George W. Bush. Indeed, buffoons or conspiracy theorists like Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Al Franken often turned up on the same stage as would-be presidents. When Moore, while endorsing Wesley Clark, called an American president at a time of war a “deserter,” when the mendacious Sharpton lectured his smiling fellow candidates on the Bush administration’s “lies” about Iraq, and when Al Gore labeled the president’s action in Iraq a “betrayal” of America, the surrender of the mainstream Democrats to the sirens of extremism was complete. Again, past decorum and moderation go out the window when the pretext is saving indigenous peoples from American oppression.

The consensus for appeasement that led to September 11, albeit suppressed for nearly two years by outrage over the murder of 3,000, has reemerged in criticism over the ongoing reconstruction of Iraq and George Bush’s prosecution of the War on Terror.

The tired voices that predicted a litany of horrors in October 2001—the impassable peaks of Afghanistan, millions of refugees, endemic starvation, revolution in the Arab street, and violations of Ramadan—now complain, incorrectly, that 150,000 looted art treasures were the cost of guarding the Iraqi oil ministry, that Halliburton pipelines and refineries were the sole reason to remove Saddam Hussein, and that Christian fundamentalists and fifth-columnist neoconservatives have fomented a senseless revenge plot against Muslims and Arabs. Whether they complained before March 2003 that America faced death and ruin against Saddam’s Republican Guard, or two months later that in bullying fashion we had walked over a suddenly impotent enemy, or three months later still that, through incompetence, we were taking casualties and failing to get the power back on, leftist critics’ only constant was their predictable dislike of America.

Military historians might argue that, given the enormity of our task in Iraq—liberating 26 million from a tyrant and implanting democracy in the region—the tragic loss of more than 500 Americans in a year’s war and peace was a remarkable sign of our care and expertise in minimizing deaths. Diplomats might argue that our past efforts at humanitarian reconstruction, with some idealistic commitment to consensual government, have a far better track record in Germany, Japan, Korea, Panama, and Serbia than our strategy of exiting Germany after World War I, of leaving Iraq to Saddam after 1991, of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban once the Russians were stopped, of skipping out from Haiti or of fleeing Somalia. Realist students of arms control might argue that the recent confessions of Pakistan’s nuclear roguery, the surrender of the Libyan arsenal, and the invitation of the UN inspectors into Iran were the dividends of resolute American action in Iraq. Colonel Khadafy surely came clean not because of Jimmy Carter’s peace missions, UN resolutions, or EU diplomats.

But don’t expect any sober discussion of these contentions from the Left. Their gloom and doom about Iraq arises precisely from the anti-Americanism and romanticization of the Third World that once led to our appeasement and now seeks its return. When John Kerry talks of mysterious prominent Europeans he has met (but whose names he will not divulge) who, he says, pray for his election in hopes of ending George Bush’s Iraqi nightmare, perhaps he has in mind people like the Chamberlainesque European Commission president Romano Prodi, who said in the wake of the recent mass murder in Spain: “Clearly, the conflict with the terrorists is not resolved with force alone.” Perhaps he has in mind, also, the Spanish electorate, which believes it can find security from al-Qaida terrorism by refuting all its past support for America’s role in the Middle East. But of course if the terrorists understand that, in lieu of resolve, they will find such appeasement a mere 48 hours after a terrorist attack, then all previously resolute Western democracies—Italy, Poland, Britain, and the United States—should expect the terrorists to murder their citizens on the election eve in hopes of achieving just such a Spanish-style capitulation.

In contrast, George W. Bush, impervious to such self-deception, has, in a mere two and a half years, reversed the perilous course of a quarter-century. Since September 11, he has removed the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, begun to challenge the Middle East through support for consensual government, isolated Yasser Arafat, pressured the Europeans on everything from anti-Semitism to their largesse to Hamas, removed American troops from Saudi Arabia, shut down fascistic Islamic “charities,” scattered al-Qaida, turned Pakistan from a de facto foe to a scrutinized neutral, rounded up terrorists in the United States, pressured Libya, Iran, and Pakistan to come clean on clandestine nuclear cheating, so far avoided another September 11—and promises that he is not nearly done yet. If the Spanish example presages further terrorist attacks on European democracies at election time, at least Mr. Bush has made it clear that America—alone if need be—will neither appease nor ignore such killers but in fact finish the terrible war that they started.

As Jimmy Carter also proved in November 1979, one man really can make a difference.

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Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A War Like No Other" (Random House).


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