F or all the talk of imperial America, and our frequent “police actions,” we are hardly militarists. Protected by two oceans, and founded on the principles of non-interference in Europe’s bloody internecine wars, the United States has always been rightly circumspect about going to war abroad. The American people are highly individualistic, skeptical of war’s utility, and traditionally distrustful of government–and wary of the need of their sacrifice for supposed global agendas.
So we go to war reluctantly. And being human, our support for war hinges on its being short and economical, and waged for professed idealistic principles. Wars that drag on past three years–from the Civil War to Vietnam–can often lead to demonstrations and popular disdain.
By the same token, some politics are more compatible with the American perception of the need to fight.
It was not only Lincoln’s gifted rhetoric that got the Union through Cold Harbor and the Wilderness, but after the war’s initial months of hard fighting, his reinvention of the North’s very aims, from a utilitarian struggle to restore the United States to a moral crusade to end slavery and the power of the plantationists for good. In that effort, he was willing to suspend habeas corpus, sidestep the Congress, and govern large chunks of the border states through martial law.
Woodrow Wilson intervened liberally in Central America. He led us to war against right-wing Prussian militarism. His “too proud to fight” slogan in was no time scrapped for the Fourteen Points, a utopian blueprint for the nations of the world, handed down by a former professor from his high and moralistic Olympus.
Few worried that Franklin Delano Roosevelt not only waged a savage global struggle against Italian, German, and Japanese fascism, but in the process did some pretty unsavory and markedly illiberal things at home. It was no right-wing nut who locked up Japanese Americans without regard for habeas corpus or ordered German agents to be shot as terrorists.
To end the dictatorial and genocidal plans of Slobodan Milosevic, liberal Bill Clinton was willing to bomb downtown Belgrade, commit American forces to a major campaign without U.S. Senate approval, and bypass the United Nations altogether. Few accused him of fighting an illegal war, contravening U.N. protocols, or cowardly dropping bombs on civilians. In all these cases, public opposition was pretty much muted, despite the horrendous casualties involved in some of the conflicts.
Some general principles, then, can guide us in determining American reactions to war, and they transcend even the notion of comparative sacrifice and cost. Progressives such as Wilson and Clinton, who, we are assured, hate war, can intervene far more easily, and are more likely to receive a pass from a hypercritical elite media.
In the end, they always seem forced to fight by circumstances, since their very liberal natures are supposed to abhor optional conflicts. FDR’s wartime criminal-justice apparatus trumped anything that John Ashcroft could imagine, but it has remained relatively unexamined even to this day: Liberals must have had very good reasons to put non-white people in camps, so contrary to their innate notions of social justice.
Second, the United States seems to be more united against right-wing fascism than left-wing totalitarianism, perhaps because our elites in academia, journalism, and politics feel authoritarian dictators from the right lack the veneer of egalitarian empathy for the poor. In any case, we are more prone even today to assume the 6-8 million Hitler slaughtered puts him in a category far worse than Stalin or Mao, despite the fact that the two combined did away with ten times Hitler’s tally.
During World War II, here at home we experienced nothing like the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss working for the Axis, even though Soviet-inspired global Communism would end up liquidating 80 million in Russia and China alone. Fighting North Korea or North Vietnam–or even waging the Cold War–was a far more difficult enterprise than opposing the Kaiser, Hitler, Mussolini, or Tojo. Our successes were often due to the efforts of strong anti-Communist democrats such as Harry Truman, who could assure our influential universities, media, politicians, writers, actors, and foundations of the real danger, and the fact that the president had little choice but to go to war.
In this context, many had some apprehensions about the present so-called war on terror. Ostensibly, the Islamists who had pulled off September 11 largely fit past definitions of fascism and so should have galvanized universal traditional American furor.
The tribal followers of bin Laden advocated a return to a mythical age of ideological purity uncorrupted by modernism, democracy, or pluralism. Islamism certainly held no tolerance for other religions, much less any who were not extreme Muslims. Sexism and racism–remember bin Laden’s taunts about Africans, ongoing slavery in the Sudan, and the genocide in Darfur–were an integral part of radical Islamist doctrine. Al-Qaeda was not so much chauvinistic as misogynistic. Substitute bin Laden’s evocation of “believer” for the old “Volk,” and the crackpot rants about world domination, purity, and the anti-Semitic slurs of “apes and pigs” fall into the old fascist slots.
It is no accident that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf are still popular sellers among zealots in some capitals of the Arab world. Was our war on terror, then, going to be morally clear to even the most progressive utopian, since our enemies lacked liberal pretensions and the charisma of a Stalin, Ho, Che, or Fidel that so often duped the gullible?
Two factors explain the current growing hysteria over Iraq, and they transcend the complex nature of the war and even the depressing media reports from the battlefield. First is the strange doctrine of multiculturalism that has become one of our most dominant boutique ideologies of the last few decades, as the United States experienced unleveled prosperity, leisure–and guilt.
All cultures are of equal merit; failure and poverty abroad are never due to indigenous pathology but rather Western colonialism, racism, Christianity, and gender bias. The Other is never to be judged by our own “biased” standards of jurisprudence and “constructed” bourgeois notions of humanity; those poorer, darker, non-Christian, and non-English-speaking are to be collectively grouped as victims, deserving condescension, moral latitude, and some sort of reparations or downright cash grants. Senator Patti Murray gave us the soccer-mom version of this pathology when she once talked of the need to rival bin Laden’s supposed humanitarian projects in Afghanistan, while Senator Durbin assures us from a private e-mail that poor suspects in Cuba (no longer terrorists who plot to butcher more thousands) suffer the similar fate of Hitler’s victims.
As September 11 faded in our collective memory, Muslim extremists were insidiously but systematically reinvented in our elite presentations as near underprivileged victims, and themselves often adept critics of purported rapacious Western consumerism, oil profiteering, heavy-handed militarism, and spiritual desolation.
Extremists who would otherwise be properly seen in the fascistic mold were instead given a weird pass for their quite public and abhorrent hatred of non-believers and homosexuals, and their Neanderthal views of women. Beheadings, the murder of Christians, suicide bombings carried out by children, systematic torture–all this and more paled in comparison to hot and cold temperatures in American jails on Cuba. Suddenly despite our enemies’ long record of murder and carnage, we were in a war not with fascism of the old stamp, but with those who were historical victims of the United States. Thus problems arose of marshalling American public opinion against the supposedly weaker that posited legitimate grievances against Western hegemons. It was no surprise that Sen. Durbin’s infantile rantings would be showcased on al-Jazeera.
When Western liberals today talk of a mythical period in the days after 9/11 of “unity” and “European solidarity” what they really remember is a Golden Age of Victimhood, or about four weeks before the strikes against the Taliban commenced. Then for a precious moment at last the United States was a real victim, apparently weak and vulnerable, and suffering cosmic justice from a suddenly empowered other. Oh, to return to the days before Iraq and Afghanistan, when we were hurt, introspective, and pitied, and had not yet “lashed out.”
If one examines the infomercials of a bin Laden or Zawahiri, or the terrorist communiqués sent to the Westernized media, they are almost all rehashes of the Michael Moore Left, from “Bush lied” to “Halliburton” to “genocide” and “Gulag.” This now famous “Unholy Alliance” of radical anti-Americans and reactionary jihadists is really a two-way street: Islamists mimic the old leftist critique of the United States, and the Western Left hopes that they in turn can at least tone down their rhetoric about knocking walls over gays or sending all women into burka seclusion–at least long enough to pose as something like disposed Palestinians minus the Hamas bombs laced with feces, rat poison, and nails.
The second problem was that not only were we no longer clearly fighting a right-wing extremist ideology, but Texan, twangy, and conservative President Bush was hard to repackage into the reluctant liberal warrior in the image of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, or Bill Clinton.
So there was never much room for error in this war. We are not talking in this postmodern era in terms of a past Democratic president invading Latin America, interring citizens in high-plains camps, hanging terrorist suspects, nuking cities, or bombing pharmaceutical factories in Africa, but, at least from the weird present hysteria, something apparently far worse–like supposedly flushing a Koran at Guantanamo.
In a leisured and liberal society, it is very difficult in general for a conservative to wage war, because the natural suspicion arises–as a result of the conservative’s tragic view of human nature and his belief in the occasional utility of force–that he enjoys the enterprise far more than a lip-biting progressive, who may in fact order more destruction. George H. W. Bush barely pulled off freeing Kuwait, but only because he fought on the ground for only four days, used the aegis of the U.N., pulled back on televised images of the so-called “Highway of Death,” and was able to avoid going to Baghdad and dealing with a murdering despot still in power.
In contrast, once the metamorphosis of the Islamists from fascists to victimized critics of the West was underway, and once a suspect conservative like George Bush eschewed the old League of Nations utopianism, the fireside chat, and the “I feel your pain” persona of traditional Democratic war leaders, I feared we would have real trouble finishing this war.
Contrary to all recent popular wisdom, the war in Iraq is not a disaster, but nearing success. It has been costly and at times tragic, but a democracy is in place, accords are being hammered out with Sunni rejectionists, and the democratic reformist mindset is pulsating into Lebanon, Egypt, and the Gulf. This has only been possible because of the courage and efficacy of a much maligned military that, for the lapses of a small minority at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, has been compared to Stalin and Hitler.
If President Bush were a liberal Democrat; if he were bombing a white Christian, politically clumsy fascist in the heart of Europe; if al Qaeda and its Islamist adherents were properly seen as eighth-century tormenters of humanists, women, homosexuals, non-Arabs, and non-Wahhabi believers; and if Iraq had become completely somnolent with the toppling of Saddam’s statue, then the American people would have remained behind the effort to dismantle Islamic fundamentalism and create the foundations to ensure its permanent demise.
But once the suicide murdering and bombing from Iraq began to dominate the news, then this administration, for historical reasons largely beyond its own control, had a very small reservoir of good will. The Islamists proved to be more adept in the public relations of winning liberal exemption from criticism than did the administration itself, as one nude Iraqi on film or a crumpled Koran was always deemed far worse than daily beheadings and executions. Indeed, the terrorists were able to morph into downtrodden victims of a bullying, imperialistic America faster than George W. Bush was able to appear a reluctant progressive at war with the Dark Age values of our enemies.
And once that transformation was established, we were into a dangerous cycle of a conservative, tough-talking president intervening abroad to thwart the poorer of the third world–something that has never been an easy thing in recent American history, but now in our own age has become a propagandist’s dream come true.
–Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.