An atmosphere of gloom hangs over Washington, D.C. It is more palpable at Republican and conservative gatherings, but Democrats and liberals feel the threat of it, too. In both parties, success in Iraq as formerly defined — the establishment of a stable, democratic government able to exist without outside help — has few remaining high-level believers apart from President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain. Republicans fear they will be blamed for starting an unsuccessful war; Democrats are nervous of being held responsible for the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. Both have a policy of wringing their hands.
Gloom over Iraq is reinforced by other developments: Russia’s drift to authoritarianism, Moscow’s power-play with energy, the intractable problems of Iran and North Korea, the advance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, an improvement in U.S. relations with its allies that is modest at best, and so on. As the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow says when his pot of gold is stolen: “Doom and gloom. Doom and gloom.”
Yet Bush has at least one solid reason for not succumbing to this widespread mood: he still has his pot of gold. The U.S. economy continues to hum merrily along. It has enjoyed 25 years of rapid economic growth interrupted only by two very mild recessions since Ronald Reagan’s economic recovery plan kicked in. A strong economy strengthens presidents at home and nations abroad.
But a much stronger reason for resisting pessimism is that the U.S. and the West overcame a much worse combination of crises in the late 1970s and early ’80s. These included two oil price hikes by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries; massive worldwide stagflation; Soviet advances into Central America, Africa, and Afghanistan; the Tehran hostage crisis (aggravated by the failure of Jimmy Carter’s rescue mission); the loss of South Vietnam, leading to the “boat people” crisis; the spread of terrorism; the installation of Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe; and the drift of the U.N. towards a Third World radicalism exemplified by its support for the so-called new world economic order of international socialist redistribution.
Grievous though these crises were, almost the worst thing about them was the mood of despair they engendered. The idea that the West had embarked on an inevitable decline gripped elites. The Club of Rome forecast increasing shortages of raw materials that would lead to a drastic lowering of Western living standards. Pro-Soviet forces were advancing in Southeast Asia, Central America, Afghanistan, and throughout Africa. Traditionally stable countries such as Britain, gripped by labor unrest, were seen as “ungovernable.” And Carter famously gave a national address arguing that the U.S. suffered from a spiritual malaise (though he never used that word).
These fears coagulated into a nightmare of the West being overwhelmed by economic forces and Marxist guerrillas simultaneously. Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan were a response to the crises and the nightmare mood they engendered. They spoke and acted as apostles of Hope from the first. Reagan campaigned on the theme that America’s greatest achievements lay in the future — “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Thatcher preached the economic recovery of a Britain that returned to free markets and sound money. The Polish pope told the faithful, “Be not afraid.”
All three had an immediate uplifting impact. The Iranians released their American hostages even as the new president was delivering his inaugural address. John Paul II gave heart to Eastern Europe when, within days of becoming Pope, he warned the Soviets that the Church there was no longer a Church of silence: “It speaks with my voice.” But they did not confine themselves to sounding hopeful. They set about tackling the crises facing them in practical ways — Thatcher, for instance, got Britain’s Special Forces to storm (successfully) the Iranian embassy and free hostages held there. The hope they offered was not some facile optimism but a combination of courage and solving real problems. Every problem they solved built their reputations and made it easier to solve the next one.
But they were mainly concerned to outmaneuver their main opponent, Soviet Communism. This each of them did in their own distinctive way. John Paul II sapped the ideological foundations of Communism. On his June 1979 visit to Poland, he demonstrated that the Poles in their millions wanted God and liberty. That visit undermined the authority of Polish Communism, inspired the rise of the Solidarity movement, spread to the rest of Eastern Europe, and led to the anti-Communist “velvet revolutions” 10 years later. Thatcher undermined Communism by outperforming it economically. By launching the privatization of state industries — which became a worldwide revolution — she transformed capitalism and ushered in the new information economy. Mikhail Gorbachev was left with the choice of either reforming an antiquated Communism or watching the Soviet Union languish in the industrial age. Reagan undermined the Soviets strategically by forcing them into a military, technological, and ideological competition that they could never win.
These three challenges undermined the Soviet Union and its allies in a surprisingly short time.
As early as May 8, 1982, one of the Soviet politburo’s most senior foreign policy strategists, Anatoly Chernyaev, confided to his diary: “No! There will be no war in the foreseeable future. But there will be a major propagandist, and particularly economic, offensive which will put us and the whole socialist world in a situation of crisis. This means we must urgently, fundamentally, change everything from top to bottom. Otherwise, we cannot avoid a ‘Russian Poland’ within about 10 years.”
Chernyaev proved a good prophet. Once the Soviets began to experience decline, they lacked the resilience of a free civilization that had enabled the West to recover. By 1986, Gorbachev was suing for peace at Reykjavik; by 1987 he was consulting Thatcher on economic modernization; by 1989 he was introducing John Paul II to his wife, Raisa, as “the most powerful moral authority in the world”; and by 1991 it was all over.
And once the Soviet Union was defeated, all the other dangers that had once seemed so overwhelming — from the new world economic order to Third World guerillas in black pajamas — gradually dissipated. The West had won.
Despair is always a poor counselor. We do not yet know the outcome in Iraq — but we know that it will be determined more on the American domestic front than in Baghdad. We cannot predict the long-term consequences of even a bad outcome there: as several commentators have noticed, it has already produced a strong division within the Islamic world that may turn Sunni and Shia jihadists against each other and divert them from the West. America’s European allies are meanwhile becoming more alarmed about Iran as it flexes its muscles vicariously through Hezbollah in Lebanon. And the U.S. has recently helped to defeat Islamist fighters in — of all places — Somalia where a decade ago an American retreat encouraged Osama bin Laden to launch his jihad against the West.
Above all, crises can be tackled more sensibly if we examine them separately and calmly rather than allowing them to coagulate into a nightmare that, almost by definition, is not susceptible to rational dealing. That is one clear lesson that Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II taught us a generation ago.
– John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (Regnery).