The present fighting is part of a fourth war for Iraq: Gulf War I, the twelve years of no-fly zones, the three-week war in 2003, and now the three-year-old insurrection that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein.
But this last and most desperate struggle, unlike the others, is being waged on several fronts.
First, of course, is the fighting itself to preserve the elected democracy of Iraq. Twenty-five-hundred Americans have died for that idea — the chance of freedom for 26 million Iraqis, and the more long-term notion that the Arab Middle East’s first democracy will end the false dichotomy of Islamic theocracy or dictatorship. That non-choice was the embryo for the events of September 11.
Although it is not the sort of conventional war that Westerners excel at — the enemy has no uniforms, state organization, or real army — our military has performed brilliantly. Past mistakes made were largely political, such as not quickly turning over control to an interim Iraqi government in summer 2003 while allowing the Iraqis sole public exposure.
But these were tactical and procedural, not moral, errors. They have only delayed, but not aborted, the emergence of a stable democratic Iraqi government. For all the propaganda of al Jazeera, the wounded pride of the Arab Street, or the vitriol of the Western Left, years from now the truth will remain that our soldiers did not come to plunder or colonize, but were willing to die for others’ freedom when few others would. Neither Michael Moore nor Noam Chomsky can change that, because it is not opinion, but truth — something that the Greeks rightly defined as “not forgetting” or “something that cannot be forgotten ” (alêtheia).
Note also that after the hysteria over body armor and unarmored humvees, the Democratic opposition offers no real concrete alternatives to the present policy .
Why not? Because there are none.
The choices are really only two: either leave right away and quit the war on terror, or train the Iraqis and draw down carefully as planned all along. The Democrats will clamor for the former. But when put in the public spotlight, they will hold off from Vietnam-style funding cut-offs to claim credit for the success of the latter.
There is a second war, one being waged over public opinion. It is critical, considering that we are in a non-conventional struggle of attrition that requires the American people to support a far-away war where movement and front lines are irrelevant. And it is sadly being lost — at least if polls are correct that only around 40 percent of the citizenry still supports the idea of finishing the war in Iraq.
Regrettably, there has not been successful and constant explication of why we are in Iraq. Yet, because George Bush is in his second term, and is not Clintonian in obsession with polls and being liked, he can still guarantee the military two more years to stabilize the country. Then the hope is that the Iraqis will be able to secure their democracy in the future with a small number of American advisors and civilian aides, which might allow Iraq an opportunity something akin to that offered to the postwar Balkans.
There is a third war: that for the larger future of the Middle East. Pessimists point to the Gulf, Egyptian, and North African autocracies. And they see there only failure in the American efforts at democratization.
But the point is not to see Rotary Clubs and school boards sprouting up in the failed states of the Middle East. Instead, we can be happy enough with the beginning of the end of the old “stability” that nurtured terrorism. The public is nursed on news of car bombs, and the tired canard that supporting democracy always ensures perpetual Islamism. But if we remain calm and rational, then we can already see signs of real change in the unease and agitation of the Middle East, from Libya to Lebanon. All this was unleashed by the removal of Saddam Hussein and the American effort to stay on to foster something different despite base slurs, escalating oil prices, and the politicization of the war in a soon to be third wartime national election.
Nascent democracy is the reason that Afghans and Iraqis, alone in the Middle East, get up each morning and risk their lives to hunt down Islamic terrorists. For all the mess on the West Bank, it was only the free elections that brought in Hamas which offered the Palestinians the opportunity of self-expression. And now they alone suffer the responsibility to live with the economic and military consequences of their disastrous decision. Perhaps they may wish to reconsider next election.
Arafat’s pernicious façade of a “legitimate” government that “sincerely” tried to rein in “rogue” elements is now shattered in both Europe and America. After the Palestinians willingly voted a terrorist government into power, the Hamas politicians are simply fulfilling campaign pledges and doing what terrorists always do: rocketing civilians, murdering, and kidnapping. And now, since there is no more shady, so-called “Hamas,” but only the Hamas-led legitimate government of Palestine, there may be soon a conventional struggle at last, between two sovereign and legitimate states. Such are the wages of moral clarity that accrue from democracy.
Finally, we are witnessing a larger existential war, in which Iraq is the central, but not the only, theater. Put simply: will the spreading affluence and liberality of Westernization undermine the 8th-century mentality of the Islamists more quickly than their terrorists, armed with Western weapons, prey on the ennui of a postmodern Europe and America — with our large gullible populations that either don’t believe we are in a real war, or think that we should not be?
Americans know exactly the creed of the Islamists and what they have in store for us nonbelievers. Yet if we are not infidels, can we at least be fideles? That is, can we any longer articulate what we believe in, and whether it is worth defending?
The problem is not that the majority of Americans have voiced doubts about the future of Iraq — arguments over self-interest and values happen in every long war when the battlefield does not daily bring back good news.
Instead, the worry is that too many have misdirected their anger at the very culture that produced and nourished them. Sen. Kennedy could have objected to Abu Ghraib — so far the subject of nine government inquiries — without comparing the incident to the mass murdering of Saddam Hussein.
Sen. Durbin might have had doubts about Guantanamo — the constant site of Red Cross and congressional visits — but there was no need to tie it to the fiendish regimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot.
Cindy Sheehan could have recanted her initial favorable remarks after meeting George Bush without later labeling him the world’s greatest terrorist.
The New York Times might have editorialized about the dangers of stealthy government security measures without publishing sensitive, leaked material in a time of war. It is precisely this escalation from criticism of the war to furor at our elected government and civilian-controlled military that is so worrisome — and so welcomed by the enemy, as we see when it cleverly regurgitates our own self criticism as its own.
The military is doing its part. It defeated Saddam Hussein, and prevented a plethora of terrorists from destroying a fragile democracy abroad and the contemporary world’s oldest here at home. Despite the caricature and venom, the original belief of the 2002 Congress that there were at least 23 reasons to topple Saddam remains valid and is reaffirmed daily, especially as we learn more of the ties between al Qaeda and Iraqi Baathist intelligence and slowly trace down the footprints of a once vast WMDs arsenal. And the effort to ensure a democratic denouement to the war, both in and beyond Iraq, is the only solution to wider Middle East pathology.
No, our problem lies in two more abstract but just as important struggles over Iraq. Either we did not communicate well the noble purposes of sacrifices abroad, or, after Vietnam, an influential elite has made it impossible for any president to do so.
We can correct that first lapse, but I am not so sure about the second.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.