In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed entitled “American Debacle” Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national-security adviser to President Carter, begins with:
Some 60 years ago Arnold Toynbee concluded, in his monumental “Study of History,” that the ultimate cause of imperial collapse was “suicidal statecraft.” Sadly for George W. Bush’s place in history and–much more important–ominously for America’s future, that adroit phrase increasingly seems applicable to the policies pursued by the United States since the cataclysm of 9/11.
Brzezinski soon adds, “In a very real sense, during the last four years the Bush team has dangerously undercut America’s seemingly secure perch on top of the global totem pole by transforming a manageable, though serious, challenge largely of regional origin into an international debacle.”
What are we to make of all this, when a former national-security adviser writes that the war that began when Middle Eastern terrorists struck at the heart of the continental United States in New York and Washington–something that neither the Nazis, Japanese militarists, nor Soviets ever accomplished–was merely a “challenge largely of regional origin”?
Some “region”–downtown Manhattan and the nerve center of the American military.
Aside from the unintended irony that the classical historian Arnold Toynbee himself was not always “adroit,” but wrong in most of his determinist conclusions, and that such criticism comes from a high official of an administration that witnessed on its watch the Iranian-hostage debacle, the disastrous rescue mission, the tragicomic odyssey of the terminally ill shah, the first and last Western Olympic boycott, oil hikes even higher in real dollars than the present spikes, Communist infiltration into Central America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Cambodian holocaust, a gloomy acceptance that perpetual parity with the Soviet Union was the hope of the day, the realism that cemented our ties with corrupt autocracies in the Middle East (Orwellian sales of F-15 warplanes to the Saudis minus their extras), and the hard-to-achieve simultaneous high unemployment, high inflation, and high interest rates, Mr. Brzezinski is at least a valuable barometer of the current pessimism over events such as September 11.
Such gloom seems to be the fashion of the day. Iraq is now routinely dismissed as a quagmire or “lost.” Osama bin laden is assumed to be still active, while we are beginning the fifth year of the war that is “longer than World War II.” Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo purportedly are proof of our brutality and have lost us hearts and minds, while gas prices spiral out of control. The U.S. military is supposedly “overextended” if not “wrecked” by Iraq, while the war in Afghanistan “drags on.” Meanwhile, it is “only a matter of time” until we are hit with another terrorist strike of the magnitude of September 11. To cap it off, the United States is now “disliked” abroad, by those who abhor our “unilateralism” and “preemptive” war.
All that is a fair summation of the current glumness.
But how accurate are such charges? If one were to assess them from the view of the Islamic fundamentalists, they would hardly resemble reality.
Many of al-Zarqawi or Dr. Zawahiri’s intercepted letters and communiqués reveal paranoid fears that Iraq is indeed becoming lost–but to the terrorists. The enemy speaks of constantly shifting tactics–try beheading contractors; no, turn to slaughtering Shiites; no, butcher teachers and school kids; no, go back to try to blow up American convoys. In contrast, we are consistent in our strategy–go after jihadists, train Iraqi security forces, promote consensual government so Iraq becomes an autonomous republic free to determine its own future. We will leave anytime the elected government of Iraq asks us to; the terrorists won’t cease until they have rammed, Taliban-style, an 8th-century theocracy down the throats of unwilling Iraqis.
Bin Laden is in theory “loose,” but can’t go anywhere except the wild Afghan-Pakistan border or perhaps the frontiers of Kashmir. His terrorist hierarchy is scattered, and many of his top operatives are either dead or, like him, in hiding. For all the legitimate worry over the triangulation of Pakistan, it is still safer for Americans openly to walk down the streets of Islamabad than for bin Laden. In any case, at least the former try it and the latter does not. How much food and medical supplies will bin Laden airlift in to his fellow Muslims reeling from the earthquake?
Note how al Qaeda has dropped much of its vaunted boasts to restore the caliphate over the infidel, and now excuses its violence with the plea of victimhood: “After all this, does the prey not have the right, when bound and dragged to its slaughter, to escape? Does it not have the right, while being slaughtered, to lash out with its paw? Does it not have the right, after being slaughtered, to attack its slaughterer with its blood?”
The war against the terrorists may be entering the fifth year, but despite over 2,000 combat fatalities, we have still only lost a little over 2/3s of those killed on the very first day of the war, almost 50 months ago–quite a contrast with the over 400,000 American dead at the end of World War II. And a wrecked Japan and Germany were not on a secure path to democracy until six years after America entered the war, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan that were defeated without killing millions and already have held plebiscites on new constitutions.
Westerners, it is true, sensationalize the abuses of Abu Ghraib and perceived grievances of Guantanamo far more than they do the abject slaughtering and beheading by the enemy. Nor do Americans write much about the heroics of their own U.S. Marines in retaking Fallujah or their brave Army battalions in providing security for civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq to vote.
But our enemies still are not impressed by such a self-critical mentality, and know that a trip to Abu Ghraib does not mean either a Saddam-like torture chamber or an al Qaeda beheading, but rather far better conditions than they ever would extend to others, and often a rest of sorts between attacking Americans. As for Guantanamo, it is humane compared to any jail in the Middle East, and fundamentalists only harp on its perceived brutality since they think such invective resonates with Western opponents of America’s current policy.
Oil is the weirdest theme of the debate over the war. Opponents claim that we went there to steal or control it. But after we arrived, as in the case of 1991 when we had the entire mega-reserves of Kuwait in our grasp, we turned it back over to the local owners, ensuring that for the first time in decades a transparent Iraqi government–not the French, not the Russians, not the Baathists, not the Saddam kleptocracy–now controls its own petroleum. The more the terrorists talk about Western theft of their national heritage, the more OPEC gouges the industrialized world and sends its billions in petrodollars abroad to foreign banks.
The story of the war since September 11 is that the United States military has not lost a single battle, has removed two dictatorships, and has birthed democracy in the Middle East. During Katrina, critics suggested troops in Iraq should have been in New Orleans, but that was a political, not a realistic complaint: few charged that there were too many thousands abroad in Germany, Italy, the U.K., Korea, or Japan when they should have been in Louisiana.
Afghanistan is nearing the status of the Balkans–after nearly four, not eight years of peacekeeping to keep down the remnants of fascism while democracy takes root. And Afghanistan was a war (like Iraq) approved by the U.S. Senate and House–unlike Mr. Clinton’s bombing of Serbia.
The enemy seems frustrated that it cannot repeat September 11 here in the United States. Hundreds of terrorists have been arrested, and direction from a central al Qaeda leadership has been lost. Killing jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq has, as their communiqués show, put terrorists on the defensive–understandable after losing sympathetic governments like the Taliban.
We have made plenty of mistakes since September 11, often failed to articulate our goals and values, and turned on each other in perpetual acrimony. Federal spending is out of control, and our present energy policy won’t wean us off Middle Eastern petroleum for years. But still lost in all this conundrum is that the old appeasement of the 1990s is over, the terrorists are losing both tactically and strategically, and, as Tony Blair said of the evolving Western mentality, “The rules of the game are changing.”
Finally, we need to be systematic in our appraisal of the course of this war, asking not just whether the United States is more popular and better liked, but rather whether Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Egypt are moving in the right or wrong direction. Is Europe more or less attuned to the dangers of radical Islam, and more or less likely to work with the United States? Is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute getting worse or stabilizing? Is our security at home getting better, and do we understand radical Islam more or less perfectly? Are Middle East neutrals like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan more or less helpful in the war against the terrorists? Are global powers like India and Japan more or less inclined to America? And are clear-cut enemies such as Iran and Syria becoming more or less emboldened or facing ostracism?
If we look at all these questions dispassionately, and tune out the angry rhetoric on the extreme Left and Right, then we can see things are becoming better rather than worse–even as the media and now the public itself believes that a successful strategy is failing.
And as for Mr. Brzezinski’s indictment–most of us still would prefer the United States of 2005 to the chaotic America of 1977-80 under an administration that did little to confront the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which began in earnest on its watch with the real debacle in Tehran.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His book A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War appears this month.