Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON ON IRAQ

I wouldn't say that I trust historians more than others generally on current events. In fact, I probably trust academic historians less than most, since most academic departments are held hostage by post-Marxist, leftist cliques. But studying history may induce a bit of perspective. There's an impressive clarity and sanity in this passage from Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq:

My rule of thumb is that almost every current, know-it-all critic, whether a Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chris Matthews (“we are all neo-cons now”), Francis Fukuyama, etc., at one time or another voiced support for removing Saddam and bringing war to Iraq.

One constant in their various escape hatches is that a particular lapse, a certain mistake alone explains their abandonment of earlier zeal—too few troops, disbanding the Iraqi army, not trisecting the country, the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld, etc.

In contrast, the simple truth is too bitter to confess: their support follows the pulse of the battlefield. When the statue fell and approval for the war hovered near 80%, few wanted to be on the wrong side of history. But fast forward three years plus: after well over 2,000 battle deaths, and chaos in Iraq, most not only don’t wish to be associated with the stasis, but contort to assure that they never supported the war in the beginning (hard to do with footprints on the internet), or were supposedly betrayed by the incompetence of others.

I admit to being somewhat jaded: 80% of most people have no ideology or widely-held views, but simply reflect perceptions of failure or success. Those who praised Lincoln to the skies when Sherman reached Savannah in December 1864, just months earlier had hated him during the awful prior summer. Those who later sang Churchill’s praises after El Alamein and Normandy Beach surely did not earlier after the string of disasters at Dunkirk, Singapore, and Tobruk. Those who wrote in praise of massive B-17 raids deep into Germany in early 1945, escorted by hundreds of lethal P-51 Mustangs, had written off daylight unescorted bombing in 1942 as an aerial holocaust. The point, again, is that in the middle of a war, savvy is apparently defined as changing positions and views to keep pace with the upside-downside battlefield, rather than looking at the long-term conduct of the war.

My own views remain the same. While I didn’t support removing Saddam prior to September 11, I am glad we did afterwards. While there were plenty of errors committed—no American should ever have appeared on Iraqi television; Tommy Franks should not have abruptly abandoned the theater; instant ad-hoc solutions were preferable to long-term utopian efforts at perfection—none of these lapses were as serious as those in the past in the hedgerows, in the skies above Germany in 1942, on Iwo Jima, or during the days before the Bulge, and none cannot be corrected and learned from.

Iraq is 7,000 miles away, in the heart of the ancient caliphate, surrounded by a hostile Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shiite Iran, and treacherous Jordan and Syria. The war was conducted through three national elections, and became the focus of a hostile global media — much of it predisposed to be critical of the US government and military.

Nevertheless, that we now have a consensual government fighting for its life against terrorists is nothing short of remarkable. Everything and everyone now hinge on the outcome.

The safety of millions of brave Iraqi reformers, the prestige of the United States and its military, the policy of fostering democratic reform in the Middle East, the end to the nexus between failed autocracies and scapegoating the West through terrorists; success of the Bush Administration; the effectiveness of the Democratic opposition; the divide between Europe and America; the attitude toward the United States of the Middle East autocracies; the reputation of the Islamic terrorists — all that will be adjudicated by the verdict in Iraq. Rarely have so many ideologies, so much politics, so many reputations been predicated on just a few thousand American combat soldiers and their Iraq allies.

I also confess, at this point I have a very reductionist, very Jacksonian view now of Americans in Iraq: America went in for the right purposes, conducted itself with honor and humanity, was still good when it was not perfect; and can leave something far better than what it found—if it will make the necessary adjustments, as in all of its past wars, and persevere. 130,000 took us at our word and are in harm’s way as a result. So I don’t care much to refight the argument over who was smart and who stupid—only how best to support out troops and ensure they win at the least possible cost.


My biggest worry is that the Iraq War has weakened, and/or will (continue to) weaken, the "generalized credible threat of American power," as I argued one year ago. This depends on our military's capabilities. Are we overstretched?

If the military can handle it-- and if they can, everything I read about them says that want to and their determination remains unshaken-- then certainly we're engaged in a noble cause. If anything, in the last year I've become more swayed by the human issue, wanting to fight the villains who are ruining the peace in a country that deserves better, relative to the grand strategic issue of how to use American power for good. Maybe I can't justify that rationally, it's just how I feel.

5 Comments:

  • Is for the cause of American prestige that we were (and still are) so slow to admit how hard we were finding the task of security and reconstruction? How about our refusal to accept the help of our allies around the globe on an equal basis (as opposed to "our way or the highway")? Certainly a more truly international coalition would have more legitimacy and, of course, more gross resources. It didn't fix the problem in Afghanistan (yet) of course, but then 40k troops for that vast, fractious and well-armed country is a pretty light force. I personally think we need to sacrifice a little national pride to have the best chances of saving Iraq.

    In any case, are we overstretched? Not in the near term, but we can't maintain this indefinitely without a great deal more cash, both to prevent our worn-out veterans from deciding to leave the Army and to replace our worn out equipment.

    By Blogger Nato, at 6:25 AM  

  • Sorry, I think the point made about allies is baloney. Bush spent MORE THAN A YEAR after the "Axis of Evil" speech trying to get allies on board for toppling Saddam. The simple fact is that the key allies that would have made it look like a "truly international coalition" just didn't support the policy. We tried. We tried hard. We could, of course, have left Saddam in power in deference to the wishes of the "international community" (whatever that means). I think it was more important to free Iraq. But I think it's wishful thinking to think that "sacrific[ing] a little national pride [for the sake of] saving Iraq" was ever a live option.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 11:17 AM  

  • Again we're at the same old arguments. Look, all you have to do is look at precedent. We had world-wide international support in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan. Is it really so hard to believe that we might have had a shot at world-wide support for Gulf War number two? What was sooo different? And don't give me that oil-for-food corruption BS. Please. It's naive to think that corruption doesn't exist everywhere in one form or another. That one little scandal was certainly not the main reason for not supporting us.

    But you know what? Not getting broad international support is only the tip of the iceberg as far as mistakes go. Normally mistakes don't bother me, because they're inevitable. But in this case, our administration has refused to even acknowledge them (until just recently, perhaps), and has gone out of its way to reward people for toeing the line in the face of critical mistakes. This administration has valued loyalty above competence, and that's something that just doesn't truck too well with me. I would have infinitely much more respect for Bush if he simply stated what he was trying to do, showed how his policies failed and succeeded (without propaganda), and explained what he was going to do to rectify his mistakes and move forward. I don't want to hear how great everything is and how things are getting better all the time. I want a detailed explanation of why certain policies were chosen. I want to see that critical reasoning was used when formulating policy. I want to see what the worst case scenario and disaster plans are. I want to see the contingency plans if the primary ones don't work out. I want to see unbiased analyses produced by independent think tanks sponsored by the administration/congress. Most of all, I want to see compromise and an ability to learn and adapt to a changing world; pragmatism is what the government should be all about. I certainly do not want government secrecy, propaganda, and grand speeches assuring us all that everything is great and getting better. Is that too much to ask for?

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 1:22 PM  

  • re: "We had world-wide international support in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan. Is it really so hard to believe that we might have had a shot at world-wide support for Gulf War number two? What was sooo different?"

    What was so different about Gulf War II is that it was REGIME CHANGE. It was in fundamental tension with the norms of sovereignty that guide international law. It was something new and revolutionary. A much-needed revolution, I think-- it was disgusting that the ancien regime in international relations legitimized tyrants-- but a revolution, and there was always a big chance that a consensus wouldn't be forthcoming.

    Second, it's as factual as factual can be that Chirac promised to veto any war resolution. And most of the world wasn't going to go along with us without the UN. You can think what you want. There's no law that you have to hold an evidence-based worldview. But we tried to do what Tom wants us to have done, and the world refused to go along with it.

    Maybe Europeans just don't like Christians. Maybe if Bush was an atheist Chirac would have thought overthrowing Saddam was just peachy. Maybe Europeans don't like Bush's Texan accent. Maybe some other president would have been able to get a bigger international coalition. Maybe that's a reason to wish that somebody other than Bush was president in 2003. But you can't fault the administration for not succeeding in doing something that it tried its hardest to do and failed to do.

    As for the rest of it: I think the administration has chosen war objectives that depend on factors outside of our control. I don't see the evidence that they're not willing to change course. As for the "happy talk" from the Bush administration, it's almost always simply the reporting of facts. And a lot of good things have happened: elections, economic growth, building of schools, capture of terrorists, training of troops, recruitment of police, writing a constitution, etc. The MSM ridicules the administration for talking about these things; the administration I guess should emphasize the negative more from their point of view. Is the negative from this war greater than the positive? How do you know? What's your ground for comparison? The MSM has no ground for comparison: they're a bunch of ignoramus spoiled-brat journalists, no philosophical reflection, no deep sense of history, no responsibility for what they say, for the stances that they take.

    Of all the people who peddle the incompetence line, only one sways me at all: Ralph Peters. He's a real soldier and knows something. But he's only one person. One data point is not enough to make a judgment. Dozens of journalists who are not military experts blather on about it, and none of their opinions really deserve any credence.

    I plan to make up my mind about whether the administration was somehow specially incompetent or not in about ten or fifteen years' time, when we've seen more of the results, when a lot of military and political histories have been written, when more documents are declassified maybe, when there are memoirs of US and Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 3:38 PM  

  • I think there may have been one or two generals (real soldiers who know something, unlike Tom and I) who have "peddled the incompetence line".

    Also, trying hard to build a coalition without making any compromises is a little different from trying hard to make a coalition to get the job done. Even at the beginning, there were a number of proposals on the table from our allies that, granted, would have required more delays, but would have brought a few more countries on board. I mean, we couldn't even muster a majority on the security council, when a delay of a month might have rescued the ability to at least outvote France's side of the argument. After flipping the rest of the world the bird like that, we might well expect to eat at least a little crow before folks would change their minds and join in. We ate no crow, made no concessions, and essentially just said "we'll be your best friend if you help us out."

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:04 PM  

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