Much of the recent domestic critique of American efforts in the Middle East has long roots in our own past–and little to do with the historic developments on the ground in Iraq
1. “It’s America’s fault.”
Some on the hard left sought to cite our support for Israel or general “American imperialism” in the Middle East as culpable for bin Laden’s wrath on September 11. Past American efforts to save Muslims in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan counted for little. Even less thanks were earned by billions of dollars given to Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. The Islamofascist vision of a Dark Age world run by unelected imams–where women were in seclusion, homosexuals were killed, Jews were terrorized, Christians were routed, and freedom was squelched–registered little, even though such visions were by definition at war with all that Western liberalism stands for.
This flawed idea that autocrats supposedly hate democracy more for what it does rather than for what it represents is not new. On the eve of World War II isolationists on the right insisted that America had treated Germany unfairly after World War I and wrongly sided with British imperialism in its efforts to rub in their past defeat. “International Jewry” was blamed for poisoning the good will between the two otherwise friendly countries by demanding punitive measures from a victimized Germany. Likewise, poor Japan was supposedly unfairly cut off from American ore and petroleum, and hemmed in by provocative Anglo Americans.
By the late 1940s things had changed, and now it was the turn of the old Left, which blamed “fascists” for ruining the hallowed American-Soviet wartime alliance by “isolating” and “surrounding” the Russians with hostile bases and allies. The same was supposedly true of China: We were lectured ad nauseam by idealists and “China hands” that Mao “really” wanted to cultivate American friendship, but was spurned by our right-wing ideologues–as if there were nothing of the absolutism and innate thuggery in him that would soon account for 50 million or more murdered and starved.
Ditto the animosity from dictators like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. The Left assured us instead that both were actually neo-Jeffersonians whose olive branches were crushed by Cold Warriors, and who then–but only then–went on to plan their own gulags in Vietnam and Cuba.
2. “Americans are weak.”
Before we went into Afghanistan, we were hectored that the country’s fierce people, colonial history, rugged terrain, hostile neighbors, foreign religion, and shattered infrastructure made victory unlikely. We also forget now how the Left warned us of terrible casualties and millions of refugees before the Iraq war, and then went dormant until the insurgents emerged. At that point it resurfaced to assure that Iraq was lost and precipitate withdrawal our only hope, only to grow quiet again after the recent Iraqi election–a cycle that followed about the same 20-month timetable of military victory to voting in Afghanistan.
Now a new geopolitical litany has arisen: The reserves are “shattered”; North Korea, Syria, and Iran are untouchable while we are “bogged down” in the Sunni Triangle; a schedule for withdrawal from Iraq needs to be spelled out; there is no real American-trained Iraqi army; the entire Arab world hates us; blah, blah, blah…
In 1917, “a million men over there” was considered preposterous for a Potemkin American Expeditionary Force; by late 1918 it was chasing Germany out of Belgium. Charles Lindbergh returned from an obsequious visitation with Goering to warn us that the Luftwaffe was unstoppable. Four years later it was in shambles as four-engine American bombers reduced the Third Reich to ashes.
Japanese Zeroes, supposed proof of comparative American backwardness in 1941-2, were the easy targets of “Turkey Shoots” by 1944 as American fighters blew them out of the skies. Sputnik “proved” how far we were behind the socialist workhorse in Russia, even as we easily went to the moon first a little over a decade later. The history of the American military and economy in the 20th century is one of being habitually underestimated, even as the United States defeated Prussian imperialism, German Nazism, Italian fascism, Japanese militarism, and Stalinist Communism.
Nor in our more recent peacetime were we buried by stagflation, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise,” Japan, Inc., and all the other supposed bogeymen that were prophesized to overwhelm the institutional strength of the American state, its free-enterprise system, and the highly innovative and individualistic nature of the American people.
3. “They are supermen.”
When suicide murderers dominated the news of the Intifada, followed by the car bombers and beheaders of the Sunni Triangle, many in the West despaired that there was no thwarting such fanatics. Perhaps they simply believed more in their cause than we did in ours. How can you stop someone who kills to die rather than merely dying to kill?
That Ariel Sharon in two years defeated the Intifada by decapitating the Hamas leadership, starting the fence, announcing withdrawal from Gaza, and humiliating Arafat was forgotten. In the same manner few now write or think about how the United States military went into the heart of darkness in Fallujah and simply destroyed or routed the insurgents of that fundamentalist stronghold in less than two weeks, an historic operation that ensured a successful turnout on election day and an eventual takeover by an elected Iraqi government.
So this paradox of exaggerating the strength of our weaker enemies is likewise an American trademark. Spiked-helmeted Prussians were considered vicious pros who would make short work of doughboy hicks who had trained with brooms and sticks. Indeed, the German imperial army of World War I may have been made up of the most formidable foot soldiers of any age. Still, it was destroyed in less than four years by supposedly decadent and corrupt liberal democracies.
The Gestapo was the vanguard of a new Aryan super-race, pitiless and proud in its martial superiority. How could soda-jockeys of the Depression ever fight something like the Waffen SS with poor equipment, little training, and a happy-go-lucky attitude rather than an engrained death wish? Rather easily as it turned out, as the Allies not only defeated Nazism but literally annihilated it in about five years. Kamikazes were also felt to be otherworldly in their eerie death cult–who, after all, in the United States would take off to ram his Corsair or Hellcat into a Japanese ship? No matter–the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Army Air Corps were not impressed, and rather quickly destroyed not merely the death pilots but the very culture that launched them.
4. “We are alone.”
George Bush was said to have alienated the world, as if our friends in Eastern Europe, Britain, Australia, and a billion in India did not matter. Yet the same was said in 1941 when Latin America, Asia, and Africa were in thrall to the Axis. Neutrals like Spain, Argentina, and Turkey wanted little to do with a disarmed United States that had unwisely found itself in a two-front war with the world’s most formidable military powers.
By the 1950s we seemed to have defeated Germany and Japan only to have subsequently “lost” China and Eastern Europe once more. Much of Asia and Latin America deified the mass-murdering Stalin and Mao while deriding elected American presidents. The Richard Clarks and Joe Wilsons of that age lectured about a paranoid Eisenhower administration, clumsy CIA work, and the general hopelessness of ever defeating global Communism, whose spores sprouted almost everywhere in the form of Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, Baathism, Castroism, and various “national liberationist” movements.
Why do Americans do all this to themselves? In part, the nature of an open society is constant self-critique, especially at times of national elections. Our successes at creating an affluent and free citizenry also only raise the bar ever higher as we sense we are closer to heaven on earth–and with a little more perfection could walk more like gods than crawl as mere men.
There are also still others among us who are impatient with the give and take of a consensual society. They harbor a secret admiration for the single-mindedness of the zealot in pursuit of a utopian cause–hence the occasional crazy applause given by some Americans to the beheading “Minutemen” of the Sunni Triangle or the “brave” “combat teams” who killed 3,000 on September 11.
Finally, the intellectual class that we often read and hear from is increasingly divorced from much of what makes America work, especially the sort of folk who join the military. They have little appreciation that the U.S. Marine Corps is far more deadly than Baathist diehards or Taliban remnants–or that a fleet of American bombers with GPS bombs can do more damage in a few seconds than most of the suicide bombers of the Middle East could do in a year.
It is wise to cite and publicize our errors–and there have been many in this war. Humility and circumspection are military assets as well. And we should not deprecate the danger of our enemies, who are cruel and ingenious. Moreover, we should never confuse the sharp dissent of the well-meaning critic with disloyalty to the cause.
But nor should we fall into pessimism, when in less than four years we have destroyed the two worst regimes in the Middle East, scattered al Qaeda, avoided another promised 9/11 at home, and sent shock waves of democracy throughout the Arab world–so far at an aggregate cost of less than what was incurred on the first day of this unprovoked war. Car bombs are bad news, but in the shadows is the real story: The terrorists are losing, and radical reform, the likes of which millions have never seen, is right on the horizon. So this American gloominess is not new. Yet, if the past is any guide, our present lack of optimism in this struggle presages its ultimate success.
A final prediction: By the end of this year, formerly critical liberal pundits, backsliding conservative columnists, once-fiery politicians, Arab “moderates,” ex-statesmen and generals emeriti, smug stand-up comedians, recently strident Euros–perhaps even Hillary herself–will quietly come to a consensus that what we are witnessing from Afghanistan and the West Bank to Iraq and beyond, with its growing tremors in Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, and the Gulf, is a moral awakening, a radical break with an ugly past that threatens a corrupt, entrenched, and autocratic elite and is just the sort of thing that they were sort of for, sort of all along–sort of…