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Are We At War or Peace?
Judging the reconstruction in Iraq.


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Victor Davis Hanson

If we are still in a state of war after the attack on 9/11/01, then the past two years have proven remarkable in our efforts to put al Qaeda on the run, avoid another disaster on the scale of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and rid the world of the Taliban and Hussein tyrannies.

But if we feel the fighting is, or should be, over and we have arrived at peace, then the loss each week of Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq appears intolerable. That crude dichotomy of perception sums up the current conundrum over the daily news from Baghdad: encouraging amid a long and continuing war, but depressing and abnormal in a time of peace.

On one side is a large minority who (albeit privately) say that 9/11 was largely a criminal matter. The proper response, in this view, should have been to hunt down those individuals (not states) who helped the terrorists and let the criminal-justice system deal with the guilty — the policy, in other words, of the Clinton administration that more or less did not equate a series of terrorist murdering with an all-out war against the United States.

In this way of thinking, Afghanistan and Iraq especially were both impulsive overreactions, costing too many American lives and polarizing the Islamic world needlessly, since the agents of our destruction were individuals who were not representatives of any real Middle Eastern ideology at large. The more-extreme critics of this war would further add that rather than envisioning a conflict between civilization and fundamentalist and autocratic Middle East barbarism, we should look inward — asking ourselves why the bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of the world hate us so. Their obvious solution to preclude the anger of the “oppressed” would then be to learn to be more sensitive to the feelings of others and to listen rather than shoot.

Who are such present critics? Mostly utopians, pacifists, socialists, internationalists, many journalists, academics, and general leftists of the Democratic party, who in the aggregate perhaps consist of about 20 percent of the American public. Some are driven by genuine principles of nonintervention, others by a visceral hatred of George Bush and corporate America; many are deluded by the nostalgic nonsense that in their golden years we all may be entering another 1960s-style period of protest — when in their youth they once cut their teeth marching, singing, and generally unleashing bombast about the pathologies of their own culture. The latter remind me of Kadmos and Teiresias in Euripides’s Bacchai-stooped over and arthritic, eager to romp on Mt. Kithairon with the Bacchants, chomping at the bit to recapture their youth and ingratiate themselves with a new contrarian movement.

In contrast, supporters of the response after 9/11 in both Afghanistan and Iraq see our efforts as long overdue. Military operations are indeed eleventh-hour, even desperate correctives for a dangerous decade of appeasement, one that emboldened terrorists and rogue states that both in complementary ways sought to harm the United States. In this school — mostly those in the military, conservatives, and members of the present administration — we are in a real war consisting of various theaters against several belligerents, all united by their terrorist methods, shared hatred of the West, and desire to trump the killing of September 11 and thus eventually to emasculate the United States.

Consequently, claiming that Saddam Hussein did not like bin Laden or vice versa is about as useful as proving that Tojo’s Japanese militarism was not akin to Hitler’s Nazism, on the grounds that their ideologies were different and their anti-American strategies uncoordinated. True perhaps — but again a meaningless distinction given the realities of World War II. In this regard, I would imagine that about 50-55 percent of the public agrees with the administration and supports the need to press on with the war and the rebuilding of Iraq.

In between these two determined groups are, I suppose, millions of other quieter Americans who are not quite sure what we are doing at the moment — perhaps a quarter of our population that is always open to the arguments of either side and calibrates its feelings by the news of any given day. These moderates and more wary supported the operations in Afghanistan and even Iraq in overwhelming numbers, and their gut instincts were redeemed by the rapid military victories in both theaters.

But the dozens of American dead in the postbellum clean-up, along with horrific murdering of foreign-aid workers, the blowing up of the U.N., and tribal and sectarian fighting in Afghanistan and the Sunni Triangle, raise doubts among them as to why we are spending so much money, and yet losing Americans each week to help the likes of such people. Would it not just be better to declare victory and go home? In a depressed economy could we not better spend the money here in the United States? Is not the U.N.’s job to get involved? Can we not go back to police actions against al Qaeda that are quiet, cheap, and not so bothersome on the evening news?

The events on the battlefield will prove one of the two sides right, and thus bring along with it the undecided and fickle. The latter must be convinced each step of the way that fighting is for the long-term and, tragically so, the safer course of action for the security of themselves and their families. But because we are in a multifaceted war waged over years rather than months, and one broadcast daily and interpreted hourly by those with little knowledge and less objectivity, the administration is forced constantly to remind the public of the vast stakes involved, the enormous success already achieved, and the general-but-difficult goals ahead. To the extent that it tires or relents — for a month, a week, perhaps even a day — the media, the universities, presidential contenders, and a cultural elite will not, and thus will seek to equate the costs and setbacks that are the perennial stuff of war with defeat itself.

To summarize, we are in a war with the latest face of an age-old enemy of civilization who hates the freedom of the individual, tolerance of diverse thoughts and practices, human rights, democracy, and modernism itself. Just as Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, and militarism hijacked the good peoples of Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan, so too radical Islamic fundamentalism, working hand-in-glove with Middle East tyrannies, turns frustrations over indigenous failures into hatred of a prosperous and successful United States. And like past challenges to civilization, such barbarism thrives on Western appeasement and considers enlightened deference as weakness, if not decadence. Thus enemies like al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Baathists can only be militarily defeated, and the victims of their nihilism aided and abetted by our own efforts at reconstruction and forgiveness — but in that order only.

Just as in World War II the lull between the storms of Iwo Jima and Okinawa or the false calm between conquest of Sicily and the invasion of Italy was not peace, so too after September 11 we are in a real war that will ebb and flow as our enemies regroup and retreat. The key instead is to ignore the daily hype of the media, and keep focused on the larger picture: Which side is in the improved situation? What resources are available to the respective belligerents? What are the costs that each side has endured? By any fair token, the losses after 9/11 have been nearly all our enemies — human, material, and psychological — from bases in Afghanistan to entire nations. Yet such is the extent of our power that al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Baathists alike sorely feel that they are losing a war, while Americans attuned to the new fall season sitcoms are breezily oblivious that they are winning it.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, we are no longer at the beginning of the struggle, but not near the end either. Rather we are in a difficult middle, in an election year with a restless public that has been so nursed on such rapid, easy victories that even relative successful efforts look feeble in comparison to past miracles. It is not an easy thing, after all, to restore sanity after decades of fascism in the heart of the Arab world, amid enemies like Syria and Iran, and friends such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

There are also a number of real problems on the horizon, to which no one in Washington has quite figured out the answer. We know the Iranian government is behind much of the killing and seeks desperately deterrent nuclear weapons to preclude an accounting; but how we can confront the mullahs militarily, when a grassroots movement may do it for us, and we are still in a period of hot reconstruction in Iraq?

We know that Syria and Lebanon are embryos of terror, and have the blood of Americans on their hands, but do we risk confronting them with the Israeli-Palestinian problem still unsettled?

We know that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — or at least numerous rogue elements within their governments — have helped those who killed Americans, but do we risk losing their feeble overt support as the price of curtailing their muscular covert aid to our enemies?

And in the midst of all this complexity, how can we redirect our troops abroad — whose present nonsensical basing is a relic from the Cold War — to where they are needed without creating instability and distrust among both complacent allies and jumpy enemies?

Finally, in such a postmodern war without clearly defined borders or fronts, the American people must habitually be reminded of our ultimate aims. Militarily we must reestablish both the ability and willingness to punish immediately any cadre or state that kills or plans to kill Americans. Politically we seek, both by arms and diplomacy, to end the present pathology in the Middle East where autocratic governments create venomous hatred toward the United States among their starving and frenzied to deflect their own catastrophic failures onto us. Morally we are trying to convey the message that the United States is a proven and reliable friend of international commerce, a guarantor of freedom of the seas and skies, a protector of nations that support consensual government and human rights — and a terrible and totally unpredictable enemy of any one or state that seeks to kill Americans or their friends or to threaten the norms of civilization itself.

So if we keep all that in mind — the sheer extent of our dire challenges and the successes of our first two years — then we are doing very well in Iraq at the very nexus of this global war. But if the war either does not exist, or is already over, or has been lost, then Howard Dean & Co. are quite right to wonder what in the world George Bush is doing to disrupt their accustomed entitlement of peace and tranquility.



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