Politics & Policy

The Coming of Nemesis

Hubris and the law of unintended consequences.

Irony, paradox, hubris, and nemesis are all Greek words. They reflect an early Western fascination with natural, immutable laws of destiny, perhaps akin to something like the eastern idea of karma–that excess and haughtiness can set off a chain of events that are neither predicable nor welcome.

#ad#Take the recent controversy about President Bush’s military record. Heretofore, Mr. Kerry had wisely decided to let the sleeping dogs of Vietnam lie, perhaps cognizant of how the “bloody shirt” had once tainted and polluted 50 years of late-19th-century American presidential campaigns. Besides, the Republicans had not looked good in questioning the fine character of Max Cleland, whose service to his country deserved better. In the primaries, the genuinely war-heroic Mr. Kerry seemed to realize that it was not wise to question Howard Dean’s skiing in Aspen under the aegis of a medical deferment. After all, most Americans were more interested in talking about winning the present war rather than crying over losing the past one–and Vietnam was a morass that tarred everyone who lumbered in.

In 1992, Mr. Kerry had, quite soberly, called for an end to recriminations about Mr. Clinton’s draft record. And that was wise. From time to time he had gone on record to emphasize how tumultuous the late 1960s and 1970s were–and that what was said and done then was often a result of passion rather than reason. Kerry seemed to remember–and for that reason he was rightly cautious–that many Vietnam veterans against the war at the time had left a paper trail of greater respect for the resisters and draft-evaders who chose not to participate in an “immoral” war than for some of their fellow warriors who went over to serve and “kill.” Indeed, up until about 1980, the popular mythology for millions was that a Vietnam veteran deserved less respect than a draft-resister. Of course, we forget that absurdity now in the days of the bloody shirt, but it was nevertheless true and explains the near inexplicable contortions and subsequent reinventions of that generation that we witness today.

So Mr. Kerry rightly sensed that, while his own combat record was beyond reproach, his subsequent strident antiwar activities surely were not–ranging from confessionals about war crimes to throwing away someone else’s medals before the cameras. And Kerry was even wiser in appreciating that while a sort of mytho-history had emerged, asserting that Vietnam-era protesters once attacked the government only, never the soldiers themselves, most Americans of the era remembered a very different reality: Veterans in fact routinely and unfairly were accused of atrocities, and were slandered. Returning GIs were sometimes divided between those who felt that their service was honorable, and those who sought exculpation or popular acceptance from the protest generation by maligning fellow soldiers as agents of immorality.

Thus it was prudent to let all this alone, and not take the bait of thinking a decorated veteran who opposed the war could score points against a supporter of it who did not serve. But the Democrats were not content.

Instead, they floated old accusations that a twenty-something George Bush, who strapped himself into something as dangerous as an obsolete, fire-belching, and occasionally explosive F-102, was somehow near treasonous. Young Bush may have been impetuous and he apparently missed some roll calls, but anyone who rides the stratosphere a few inches above a jet engine is neither a coward nor a man who shirks either danger or responsibility.

Now the Democrats who thought up this low hit on the president will reap what they have sown–as Kerry’s entire (and ever-expanding) record of ancient slips and slurs will unnecessarily go under full scrutiny, the sometimes shameful words of a rash and mixed-up youth unfairly gaining as much attention as once brave deeds. By August the American people will be sick to death of Kerry’s pandering to veterans–or perhaps as indifferent to his medals as they were to the equally stellar record of sometimes-failed candidates like Bob Dole, Bob Kerry, John McCain, or Gray Davis.

The WMD controversy is similar. It is legitimate to question the nature of American intelligence as long as the fate of Saddam’s once-undeniable arsenal remains murky. And the Democrats can legitimately score points in alleging that the administration put too much emphasis on a single case for war when there were a dozen other reasons for regime change that were far more compelling.

But they were not content with that fair enough tactic. No, they had to press on with really offensive rhetoric–Messrs. Gore and Kennedy alleging conspiracies, near treason, and the “worst” diplomatic decision in U.S. history. A sad cast of provocateurs and Vietnam War-era retreads like Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Al Franken, and Not in Our Name were more often to be the intellectual godheads of the Democratic response than the ghosts of Harry Truman, JFK, and Scoop Jackson. A Hubert Humphrey would not have let a creepy Abbie Hoffman in the same room with him; Wesley Clark smirks on stage alongside a buffoonish Michael Moore as the latter calls a war-time president a deserter.

Yet the problem with this additional slander is that the war, in fact, has turned out to have a lot to do with WMD–and will bring dividends that are far more important even than disarming Saddam. Pakistan is now revealing the extent of its nuclear treachery; the developments in Libya are surreal, but inexplicable apart from the removal of Saddam; and a newly energized U.N. inspection team suddenly finds traction with Iran. Thus the more the Democrats allege American fantasies about WMD, the more quite dangerous regimes instead see reality–and fear that their own arsenals might ensure them a rendezvous with something analogous to the fate of Saddam Hussein.

The same irony is true about the hysteria over the poor Europeans, “unilateralism,” and “preemption.” The Democrats, soberly and carefully, could have tried to argue that the administration and many of us sympathetic to it were unnecessarily blunt and in need of diplomatic niceties. A fair enough charge that would have received, in turn, a fair enough, unapologetic rebuttal. But the campaigning instead brought bizarre allegations by Clark, Kerry, and Dean that the Bush administration has ruined the trans-Atlantic relationship and that we were now de facto alone in the Western world. In fact, human nature being what it is in respecting strength, action, and military success, the United States finds itself in a position of unique power vis-à-vis both allies and enemies.

Europe, albeit kicking and screaming, is just beginning to appreciate its new enhanced role as “good cop” that warns the likes of Iran and Syria not to upset the “unpredictable” Americans when they should work within their own multilateral auspices. Europeans know better than the Democrats that only American threats of force ever cut any ice in the Middle East. Kofi Annan privately grasps that the belated U.N. effort to return their inspectors to Iraq was possible only because of George Bush’s promise to use force–a threat that had a credible shelf-life of only a few months. Even the U.N. is not so much furious at Mr. Bush as intrigued and scared: intrigued that they might regain credibility if a more harnessed and circumspect America can nevertheless repeat its resolve to enforce U.N. sanctions; and scared that after last autumn’s U.N. machinations, hypocrisy, and anti-Americanism, we find them all an embarrassment if not irrelevant altogether.

Europe is also startled and embarrassed that Mr. Bush and Co. yelled out at the NATO parade that the emperor was, in fact, buck naked–and that a continent with a larger population, economy, and territory than the United States was in no need of massive American military support when its own citizenry had whipped itself into a frenzy of smug and hypocritical ingratitude. Ditto the Koreans. Democrats yell about “imperialism,” even as allies worry about our new “isolationism”–go figure.

Thus just as we witness Democratic hysteria over purported estrangement, the Europeans are far more worried about the future of NATO and their own self-induced severance from the greatest military power in the history of civilization. Only now do they realize that if they don’t commit more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan there are simply few reasons for the alliance to exist–and none at all for tens of thousands of Americans to protect their soil at times of scary things like the Olympics, more terrorists flocking into Europe, and mounting Muslim anger against belated French efforts to stand up to Islamic fundamentalism.

What a strange spectacle then now awaits us in the summer presidential campaign to come. Democrats will plead for more sensitivity to European needs–even as more neutral observers concede that for the first time in decades a new honesty and maturity is entering the trans-Atlantic relationship precisely because Mr. Bush pulled back the curtain and exposed the hypocrisy of an anti-Americanism so fashionable in the out-of-touch European shire.

No one wishes to occupy a country. But after the instability in Iraq and a cost nearing 400 combat deaths the Democrats are now not merely questioning the tactics of achieving democracy in Iraq, but the entire notion of occupation itself. But once they go down that road they will discover history is not on their side and will be hard put to offer better alternatives to the present course.

For the record, not occupying Germany in 1918 led to the myth that the Prussians were never beaten, but stabbed in the back while occupying foreign territory–a terrible mistake not repeated with postwar Japan and Germany. It might have been neater and quicker to leave Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled in the 1980s and to depart Haiti in a flash, but the wages of those exit strategies were the Taliban and September 11 as well as the current mess in the Caribbean. The first Bush administration left the present jumble in Iraq to the second, which to its everlasting credit is determined not to leave it to others. Had Mr. Clinton bombed and then just left the Balkans, rather than the present costly and bothersome peace we would have had the sectarian and tribal sort of ruin that surely will get worse if we run now from Iraq.

Since the Democrats viciously and clumsily have attacked one of the most courageous (and humane) policies of any administration in the last 30 years, the American people will soon come to ask what they in fact will propose instead (“put up or shut up”). Most of us are cognizant that bombing from 40,000 feet gives an “exit strategy,” but, without soldiers on the ground, postpones the problem of tyrannical resurgence–and thus will inevitably leave either another war for another generation or something far worse still on the horizon like September 11.

There were a number of legitimate areas of debate for the fall campaign–deficits, unfunded security measures at home, moral scrutiny over postwar contracts, more help for Afghanistan, greater control of domestic entitlements, unworkable immigration proposals, and the like. But instead of statesmanship from the opposition, we got slander about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service, misrepresentations about intelligence failures that had hampered both previous administrations and the present congress, preference for an unsupportable European position over our own, and stupidity about what to do in Iraq.

The Democrats may have seen some short-term gains from all the attention given to their bluster, but theirs still remain untenable issues. And so nemesis will bite them like they will not believe in the autumn–and, of course, just when it matters most.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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