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The Plague of Success
The paradox of ever-increasing expectations.


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Victor Davis Hanson

After September 11 national-security-minded Democratic politicians fell over each other, voting for all sorts of tough measures. They passed the Patriot Act, approved the war in Afghanistan, voted to authorize the removal of Saddam Hussein, and nodded when they were briefed about Guantanamo or wiretap intercepts of suspect phone calls to and from the Middle East.

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After the anthrax scare, the arrests of dozens of terrorist cells, and a flurry of al Qaeda fatwas, most Americans thought another attack was imminent–and wanted their politicians to think the same. Today’s sourpuss, Senator Harry Reid, once was smiling at a photo-op at the signing of the Patriot Act to record to his constituents that he was darn serious about terrorism. So we have forgotten that most of us after 9/11 would never have imagined that the United States would remain untouched for over four years after that awful cloud of ash settled over the crater at the World Trade Center.

Now the horror of 9/11 and the sight of the doomed diving into the street fade. Gone mostly are the flags on the cars, and the orange and red alerts. The Democrats and the Left, in their amnesia, and as beneficiaries of the very policies they suddenly abhor, now mention al Qaeda very little and Islamic fascism hardly at all.

Apparently due to the success of George Bush at keeping the United States secure, he, not Osama bin Laden, can now more often be the target of a relieved Left–deserving of assassination in an Alfred Knopf novel, an overseer of Nazi policies according to a U.S. senator, a buffoon, and rogue in the award-winning film of Michael Moore. Yes, because we did so well against the real enemies, we soon had the leisure to invent new imaginary ones in Bush/Cheney, Halliburton, the Patriot Act, John Ashcroft, and Scooter Libby.

Afghanistan in October, 2001, conjured up almost immediately warnings of quagmire, expanding Holy War at Ramadan, unreliable allies, a trigger-happy nuclear Pakistan on the border, American corpses to join British and Russian bones in the high desert–not a seven-week victory and a subsequent democracy in Kabul of all places.

Nothing in our era would have seemed more unlikely than democrats dethroning the Taliban and al Qaeda–hitherto missile-proof in their much ballyhooed cave complexes that maps in Newsweek assured us rivaled Norad’s subterranean fortress. The prior, now-sanctified Clinton doctrine of standoff bombing ensured that there would be no American fatalities and almost nothing ever accomplished–the perfect strategy for the focus-group/straw-poll era of the 1990s.

Are we then basking in the unbelievable notion that the most diabolical government of the late 20th century is gone from Afghanistan, and in its place are schools, roads, and voting machines? Hardly, since the bar has been astronomically raised since Tora Bora. After all, the Afghan parliament is still squabbling and a long way from the city councils of Cambridge, La Jolla, or Nantucket–or maybe not.

The same paradox of success is true of Iraq. Before we went in, analysts and opponents forecasted burning oil wells, millions of refugees streaming into Jordan and the Gulf kingdoms, with thousands of Americans killed just taking Baghdad alone. Middle Eastern potentates warned us of chemical rockets that would shower our troops in Kuwait. On the eve of the war, had anyone predicted that Saddam would be toppled in three weeks, and two-and-a-half-years later, 11 million Iraqis would turn out to vote in their third election–at a cost of some 2100 war dead–he would have been dismissed as unhinged.

But that is exactly what has happened. And the reaction? Democratic firebrands are now talking of impeachment.

What explains this paradox of public disappointment over things that turn out better than anticipated? Why are we like children who damn their parents for not providing yet another new toy when the present one is neither paid for nor yet out of the wrapper?

One cause is the demise of history. The past is either not taught enough, or presented wrongly as a therapeutic exercise to excise our purported sins.

Either way the result is the same: a historically ignorant populace who knows nothing about past American wars and their disappointments–and has absolutely no frame of reference to make sense of the present other than its own mercurial emotional state in any given news cycle.

Few Americans remember that nearly 750 Americans were killed in a single day in a training exercise for D-Day, or that during the bloody American retreat back from the Yalu River in late 1950 thousands of our frozen dead were sent back stacked in trucks like firewood. Our grandparents in the recent past endured things that would make the present ordeal in Iraq seem almost pedestrian–and did all that with the result that a free Germany could now release terrorists or prosperous South Korean youth could damn the United States between their video games.

Instead, we of the present think that we have reinvented the rules of war and peace anew. After Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the three-week war to remove Saddam, we decreed from on high that there simply were to be no fatalities in the American way of war. If there were, someone was to be blamed, censured, or impeached–right now!

Second, there is a sort of arrogant smugness that has taken hold in the West at large. Read the papers about an average day in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, or even in smaller places like Fresno. The headlines are mostly the story of mayhem–murder, rape, arson, and theft. Yet, we think Afghanistan is failing or Iraq hopeless when we watch similar violence on television, as if they do such things and we surely do not. We denigrate the Iraqis’ trial of Saddam Hussein–as if the Milosevic legal circus or our own O.J. trial were models of jurisprudence. Still, who would have thought that poor Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, a mass-murdering half-brother of Saddam Hussein, would complain that Iraqi television delayed lived feeds of his daily outbursts by whimpering, “If the sound is cut off once again, then I don’t know about my comrades but I personally won’t attend again. This is unjust and undemocratic.”

A greater percentage of Iraqis participated in their elections after two years of consensual government than did Americans after nearly 230 years of practice. It is chic now to deprecate the Iraqi security forces, but they are doing a lot more to kill jihadists than the French or Germans who often either wire terrorists money, sell them weapons, or let them go. For what it’s worth, I’d prefer to have one Jalal Talabani or Iyad Allawi on our side than ten Jacques Chiracs or Gerhard Schroeders.

Third, our affluent society is at a complete disconnect with hard physical work and appreciation of how tenuous life was for 2,500 years of civilization. Those in our media circus who deliver our truth can’t weld, fix a car, shoot a gun, or do much of anything other than run around looking for scoops about how incompetent things are done daily in Iraq under the most trying of circumstances. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that our technologies and wealth give us a pass on the old obstacles of time and space–as if Iraq 7,000 miles away is no more distant than Washington is from New York. Perhaps soldiers on patrol who go for 20 hours without sleep with 70 pounds on their back are merely like journalists pulling an all-nighter to file a story. Perhaps the next scandal will be the absence of high-definition television in Iraq–and who plotted to keep flat screens out of Baghdad.

The result of this juvenile boredom with good news and success? Few stop to reflect how different a Pakistan is as a neutral rather than as the embryo of the Taliban, or a Libya without a nuclear-weapons program, or a Lebanon with Syrians in it, or an Iraq without Saddam and Afghanistan without Mullah Omar. That someone–mostly soldiers in the field and diplomats under the most trying of circumstances–accomplished all that is either unknown or forgotten as we ready ourselves for the next scandal.

Precisely because we are winning this war and have changed the contour of the Middle East, we expect even more–and ever more quickly, without cost in lives or treasure. So rather than stopping to praise and commemorate those who gave us our success, we can only rush ahead to destroy those who do not give us even more.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War



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