Politics & Policy

Hedging On Iraq

Which side will Americans choose to be on?

What exactly do we think is going on in Iraq? The Democratic platform hedges on the war, suggesting that reasonable people can argue over the need for last year’s intervention–as if Dennis Kucinich and Joe Lieberman have only slight disagreements about our involvement. John Kerry and John Edwards voted for the war, but not for its funding. But they say that we must persevere–although they are still against it. They want more allies now, but do not tell us what Mr. Bush should do differently to get them. Their half war is like being half pregnant.

Meanwhile, emboldened paleoconservatives now talk about the war as a betrayal of old-fashioned republicanism. Even a few neocons seem to have bailed, sometimes blaming Rumsfeld for not following their grand plan of “nation-building,” sometimes suggesting that the idea all along was to topple Saddam and then more or less leave. Bremer was acclaimed at first as more astute than Garner, then about the same, now worse–perhaps tomorrow he’ll be thought better again.

What is going on? In two words: perception and politics. No one will bet the ranch on whether Iraq will descend into a Lebanon or be seen as a singular success that began to end the pathology of the Middle East. So they hedge, jump back and forth, and want to be on the “right” side–whatever that appears to be each morning. Backing a three-week war in 2003 that ended with less than 200 combat dead and the end of Saddam is one thing–that brought an immediate post-bellum gush from talking heads: “We are all neoconservatives now!” But right before an election, continuing that support for the intervention–through another 700 dead and a messy 15-month path to Iraqi sovereignty and constitutional government–well, that of course turns out to be something quite different.

The problem is not the moral question of removing Saddam in a new frightening post-9/11 world. His crimes were legion; his departure long over due. Most agree on that–but only if there is little perceived cost involved. Thus these mercurial fluctuations in public opinion are not entirely due to the actual tragic bill in blood and treasure. Some Pentagon estimates, after all, warned long ago of a six-month conventional war and 2,000 to 3,000 fatalities. Instead, the problem was the three-week victory that has had unforeseen but powerful consequences in changing our perceptions about what the war really was about and what it accomplished.

First, the Left was embarrassed in April of last year. Already stung after predicting a British-type imperial defeat in Kabul, its subsequent pre-Iraq-war scenarios of millions of refugees and thousands of American dead only confirmed its unreliability and deductive pessimism. So, it is only in this context that the loss of nearly 700 American dead in the subsequent 15-month reconstruction was seen as redeeming their initial gloom and doom. In a fateful decision, Kerry belatedly embraced Deanism and thus put himself on the path to seeing all bad war news as salutary for his own hopes and good news as fatal to his cause. The media knew that as well, and many in it reacted accordingly.

Indeed, it was worse than that. Each passing book–do we even remember all the titles in the “Lies of George Bush” genre of big-print, cheap paperbacks?–each passing investigative-committee report and each passing celebrity outburst were latched onto by critics as proof that we could not or should not win.

A dying generation of aging dissidents is desperately trying to find some final redemption to their life-long suspicion of the United States military. For these Vietnam-era retirees, the televised mayhem from Iraq–not the other 25.9 million Iraqis living in relative calm–will always be the second coming of rice paddies and Rolling Thunder. So the rocky occupation gave the Left ammunition that hardly needed a Tarawa or even a Tet, just something more to work with than the costs of the three-week war last spring.

To be fair, there was another problem as well. In places in Iraq, the enemy was never defeated–he walked away. Thus Baathists were embarrassed but not humiliated, and there is a difference. Embarrassed enemies (like the German imperial army of 1918 or the North Koreans in 1953) claim that they were never defeated but lost only due to treachery and collaboration. We all know the mess that follows.

In contrast, those humiliated know that they were not only crushed, but that further resistance brings on their own annihilation–such as the Confederacy of 1865 or the Wehrmacht in 1945. It was, of course, a very good thing at the time to have the entire Sunni trial collapse without Americans descending down into that miasma from Turkey shooting and bombing. But it would have been far easier to deal with those who needed to be dealt with in Fallujah in April 2003 than it was in April 2004.

Where does this leave us? With the unsettling acceptance, first, that people gauge their support more or less on the 48-hour battle cycle as reported in the global media, which as a rule is very hostile to the United States. Quiet in Iraq, relative calm in the Gulf, and the arrest of a few more fascist killers in Europe–all that just might sound a note of reassurance and thus create a spike of optimism.

In contrast, two to three Americans blown up every other day, more grotesque beheadings, and Saudi perfidy send the media into despair, if not hysteria, and prove that the war is indeed “lost.” This is a world, after all, in which one Filipino captive on TV can adjudicate the policy of an entire country, while one day of bombing in Madrid can alter an election. We are now centuries away from Londoners getting through the Blitz or Americans enduring Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The past quick surgical victory over Saddam also suggested that reconstruction should meet the same high bar of instant success: hardly any casualties, and instant good will and gratitude for our expense and sacrifice. Had we fought six months, a year of chaos leading to elections would have seemed a godsend. But just three weeks of conventional fighting created such a wave of expectations and confidence that anything less than a few days of acrimony over American-style elections and polite debates was deemed a failure. To the Iraqis, an army that could take out a feared Saddam in three weeks surely should have had free cell phones and air-conditioners on demand in two.

What does it all mean and where does it all lead? Roughly twenty percent of the public hates George Bush and wants us to leave Iraq–no matter what the president says or does. These one in five Americans won’t let up, and believe every lie of Michael Moore in the same way they insist Alger Hiss was innocent, Edward Said never invented his past, and Joe Wilson is a principled critic rather than a discredited impostor. On the other hand, another 30-some percent is convinced that Iraq was absolutely necessary, that the war was conducted brilliantly, that George Bush is an unusually resolute wartime president, and that the media’s gloom does not represent the true status of the reconstruction, which, tragedies and all, is working and already having powerful and positive effects on the region.

But the majority? The great 50 percent of the citizenry is fickle, without a consistent ideology. It wants success, but only if it is relatively painless, and thus is now in a dilemma as to what constitutes “painless.”

So the United States, and indeed the world, is an audience at a great match of terrorism versus civilization. Our collective heads sway back and forth, now convinced that relative quiet is proof of our wisdom, now dejected that suicide bombs prove we were naïve, if not worse, in taking out Saddam. And we haven’t even come to the summer’s political conventions, the elections in Afghanistan, the Olympics, and our own November voting.

Without historical perspective, thousands of pundits and politicians maneuver every 24-hours to “prove” that their shifting and contradictory positions, like millions of the American people’s own rising and falling spirits, are in fact really consistent and principled. But mostly they are all just confused about Iraq and not sure whether we are emerging from a few skirmishes with a few weeks left to the armistice or firing away on Guadalcanal with three more years of mayhem to go.

So, we put up with the hype and distortions that will climax in November when each dead American is seen as the equivalent of an entire division, each insurrectionist explosion will be proof of a new Lebanon, and each errant American bomb a final confirmation of another Dresden. We know it; the terrorists count on it; and, yes, the media will deliver it.

Brace yourself: In the next three months we are all in for the ride of our lives.

Victor Davis Hanson, an NRO contributor, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of The Soul of Battle and Carnage and Culture, among other books. His website is www.victorhanson.com.

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