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Our Not-So-Wise Experts
A litany of past failure.


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Victor Davis Hanson

Brent Scowcroft predicted on the eve of the Iraqi elections that voting there would increase the risk of civil war. Indeed, he foresaw “a great potential for deepening the conflict.” He also once assured us that Iraq “could become a Vietnam in a way that the Vietnam war never did.” Did he mean perhaps worse than ten years of war and over 50,000 American dead, with the Cambodian holocaust next door?

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Zbigniew Brzezinski feared that we could not do what we are in fact presently doing in Iraq: “I do not think we can stay in Iraq in the fashion we’re in now…If it cannot be changed drastically, it should be terminated.” He added ominously that it would take 500,000 troops, $500 billion, and resumption of the military draft to achieve security in Iraq. Did he mean Iraq needed more American troops than did the defense of Europe in the Cold War?

Madeleine Albright, while abroad, summed up the present American foreign policy: “It’s difficult to be in France and criticize my government. But I’m doing so because Bush and the people working for him have a foreign policy that is not good for America, not good for the world.” Elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, troops out of Saudi Arabia, democratic demonstrations in Lebanon, West Bank voting, promises of change in Egypt–all that and more is “not good for the world”?

For the last year, such well-meaning former “wise people” have pretty much assured us that the Bush doctrine will not work and that the Arab world is not ready for Western-style democracy, especially when fostered through Western blood and iron.

But too often we discuss the present risky policy without thought of what preceded it or what might have substituted for it. Have we forgotten that the messy business of democracy was the successor, not the precursor, to a litany of other failed prescriptions? Or that there were never perfect solutions for a place like the Middle East–awash as it is in oil, autocracy, fundamentalism, poverty, and tribalism–only choices between awful and even more awful? Or that September 11 was not a sudden impulse on the part of Mohammed Atta, but the logical culmination of a long simmering pathology? Or that the present loudest critics had plenty of chances to leave something better than the mess that confronted the United States on September 12? Or that at a time of war, it is not very ethical to be sorta for, sorta against, kinda supportive, kinda critical of the mission–all depending on the latest sound bite from Iraq?

Policy #1: Realism

Remember realism? Do we recall James Baker’s quip that the first Gulf War was about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” in line with his later realist fillip about the Balkan genocide: “We don’t have a dog in that fight”? Perhaps that was a sober assessment of the natural limitations on American strength; but had Bill Clinton followed the natural logic of such cynicism, Milosevic would still be in power. Imagine the reaction had the non-teflon Bush said that removing Saddam was about “jobs” or staying out of Dafur was about not having a dog in that fight.

In the Middle East, the tenets of the old realism went something like this: These people are either crazy or backward, and usually both. We are interested in them only to the extent they pump oil and deter Communists. So authoritarians get a pass if they don’t rock the boat and don’t kill too many of their own on television like Saddam or Assad did. Under no circumstances spend American blood or treasure in any pie-in-the-sky project to ameliorate the misery of the Arab people. That will both fail and only earn us disdain as being naïve as well as inept.

Where did this cynical policy lead us? The Saudi royal family–autocratic, corrupt, and unpopular–kept Russians out. Despite embargos and cartels, they mostly pumped overpriced oil. We nodded and stationed troops–and won for our efforts global Wahhabism, whose petrol-fueled mosques and madrassas were the laboratories of thousands of anti-Western terrorists.

The shah, unloved and dictatorial, likewise bought things American. So we kept our nose out of his politics: Khomeini and a quarter century of a nightmarish theocracy ensued. Pakistani dictators, we knew, might hate the Soviets as much as we did, and remind a socialist India to play it straight. Yet American de facto sanction of such strongmen inevitably led to the nuclear conspiracies of Dr. Khan, to the most anti-American and strident Islamists of the Middle East, and to unnecessary tension with the world’s largest democracy India. The formula for an Islamic “republic” is prior Western support for an anti-democratic strongman; the antidote for Islamic fascism is consistent promotion of democratic dissidents.

Policy #2: Punitivism

Then there was the cousin of realism, the much ballyhooed “punitive strike” strategy of “knocking heads when they popped up.” Remember the logic of all those forgotten hits: We bomb, send a message, and then leave–swatting the hornet’s nest and then staying clear when the stingers buzz out from the hive.

So we thwarted the Soviets in Afghanistan and departed happily–allowing in the Taliban and an al Qaeda sanctuary that gave us September 11. Get hit and run from Lebanon and Somalia. Don’t go to Baghdad after success in Kuwait, upsetting our Saudi friends and a corrupt U.N. when Saddam at least keeps a lid on even scarier things. And? After 1991, we got tens of thousands of butchered Kurds and Shiites and years of their subsequent distrust, hundreds of thousands of no-fly-zone sorties, General Zinni’s Operation Desert Fox–and Gulf War II.

Few ever considered that punitivism embodied the worst of all strategies–just enough muscle to enrage our enemies but not enough to scare them, just about right to earn their lasting scorn without ever solving the problem. Nothing is as dangerous in war as striking but not defeating an enemy, showing contempt without the real ability to humble and humiliate him.

The punitive strike was the embodiment of sober and judicious consensus, but all the same suggested to radical Islamists that the more power the United States brandished, the less likely it was to use it fully. That led to bin Laden’s disastrous calculation that George W. Bush was, like many former presidential advisers, someone who worried more about the opinions of the New York Times and the Council on Foreign Relations than about defeating the enemy.

Policy #3: Bribery

Bribery was a third option. We have given somewhere around $57 billion in aggregate aid to Egypt, apparently so that it would be nice or perhaps would keep away from Israel. Forget that the money helped to paper over structural pathologies in the Egyptian economy and empowered corrupt elites. It had even worse results, suggesting to the Cairo Street that a weak country was prevented from fulfilling its destiny of destroying Israel only by American and Zionist machinations–as if an underpowered bantamweight was kept from snatching the heavyweight title crown by devious boxing promoters.

Thus radical Egyptians never quite got it that their government settled for peace of sorts not because of American interference but because had they tried a fourth full-scale war, what was left of the Egyptian military, especially had it not been re-supplied by American arms, would have been ruined. That Mohamed Atta and Dr. Zawahiri came out of Cairo is logical rather than exceptional, as is the frequent murdering by offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood and rumors of illicit weapons programs.

Nor did we dare insist at Oslo that Palestinians should embrace the type of humane institutions found in Israel. So Yasser Arafat met Dennis Ross 500 times. Arafat was said to be the most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton White House. American money and appeasement followed and we saw kleptocracy, one-vote-one-time, intifadas, and suicide bombings–and the hopes that Mrs. Arafat and her Paris crowd would leave some crumbs for those on the West Bank, who in turn blamed their poverty on the Jews.

Policy #4: “Let Them Be”

And don’t forget the policy of indifference and inaction that was predicated on American paternalism and condescension. It is 2005 and few of us know the names of more than a half-dozen dissidents in Egypt, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, who were seen more as potential disruptors of the status quo than as the hopes of a new American foreign policy based on reciprocal notions of justice. Only in Egypt could an autocratic government that received billions in U.S. aid damn America for trying to give a measly million or two to its democratic reformers.

So for all the mess of trying to insist on democracy in the Middle East and fostering consensual government in the place of strongmen, at least muscular idealism is an improvement on what preceded it. September 11 was the wage of decades of American appeasement and neglect–a pathological Middle East left alone to blame others for its own self-induced mess, kept “in its box” by American money, a few missiles, and soft talk–like a spoiled child allowed to act up because it was incapable of serious mature behavior and because the ensuing tantrums were not worth the messy efforts at remediation.

Policy #5: The New Americanism

We’ve seen some very strange things since this war started on September 11. But nothing is quite as odd as the past architects of failure weighing in on the dangers of “neoWilsonianism,” “neoconservative ideologues,” and veiled references to Israeli machinations, as the Bush administration finally sets right three decades these people’s flawed policies and tries to promote a new Americanism based on our own universal values and aspirations.

If the American public has to hear another sermon from a Brent Scowcroft–”Sharon just has him [President Bush] wrapped around his little finger. I think the president is mesmerized”–or Madeline Albright–”Do you suppose that the Bush administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election?”–about what we are now doing wrong in the Middle East, I think it will collectively heave.

The past ostracism of Arafat and the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, followed by democratic engagement, will bring eventual stability to the Middle East and enhance the security of the United States. After the failures of all our present critics, this new policy of promoting American values is our last, best hope. And the president will be rewarded long after he leaves office by the verdict of history for nobly sticking to it when few others, friend or foe, would.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.


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