Call me a gloomy hawk. It’s not just that I’m a hawk who’s disappointed with the course of fighting in the Middle East. My concern is that our underlying foreign-policy dilemma calls for both hawkishness and gloom — and will for some time. The two worst-case scenarios are world-war abroad and nuclear terror at home. I fear we’re on a slow-motion track to both.
No, I don’t think our venture in Iraq has gotten us into this mess. I think this mess has gotten us into Iraq. And the mess will not go away, whatever we do. Our Islamist enemy has proven himself implacable — unwilling to relent in the face of either dovish or hawkish policies. That means we’re facing years — maybe decades — of inconclusive, on/off (mostly on) hot war, unless and until a nuclear terror strike, a major case of nuclear blackmail, or a nuclear clash among Middle Eastern states ushers in a radical new phase.
Let’s take a moment to think about Castro. Castro is the master and pioneer of ornery third-world defiance. We need to appreciate the immensity of Castro’s achievement in preserving Cuba’s Communist dictatorship for 17 years after the collapse of his chief patron, the Soviet Union. It’s remarkable that, absent any great-power protection, and even after becoming, without Soviet subsidies, a permanent economic basket-case, Castro’s regime has not collapsed.
Let that be a lesson to those who wait for the collapse of regimes in Iran, North Korea, or Palestine because of long-term economic failure and/or economic sanctions. Yes, popular uprisings happen (as in Iran against the Shah). Yet it’s also clear that a posture of anti-Western defiance, combined with nationalism, ideology, and dictatorial rule is perfectly capable of sustaining a miserable, poverty-stricken, failed system far, far beyond the point that Westerners would consider tolerable or believable.
If you are willing to kill yourself — if you are willing even to impoverish, immiserate, and let die much of your country, you can accomplish a great deal. Hezbollah’s gains in its war with Israel stem from its ability to define success as mere survival, even as the country around it is destroyed. This is no mere clever public-relations spin, but the reflection of a profound reality: the growing independence of terrorist organizations from states, and the willingness of Islamist terrorists to sacrifice all in pursuit of fundamentally non-material goals. With military success (accurately) framed as the near-complete destruction of terrorist forces, decisive military victory is virtually defined out of existence.
This is why the United States has turned to democratization. The stick of military force combined with the carrot of democracy was supposed to have provided a way out. Unfortunately, democratization of fundamentally illiberal societies cannot happen quickly. Real democratization requires a great deal of time and deep, painful, expensive underlying cultural change, almost impossible to bring about without an effectively permanent military occupation.
Even a long-term military occupation cannot promote democratization in the absence of social peace. The Iraqi resistance’s greatest victory came with the very start of their campaign. By creating sufficient insecurity to bar Western civilians from Iraq, the real key to democratic change was blocked from the start. If advising an Iraqi bureaucrat, working with an Iraqi entrepreneur, or teaching at an Iraqi college had become career-making occupations for an ambitious generation of young American civilians, we might have had a chance to build genuine democracy in Iraq. Once the rebellion made that sort of cultural exchange impossible, the democratization project was cut off before it could begin.
I’ve made these points about the problems of democratization since before the invasion of Iraq (See my “After the War” and “Democratic Imperialism.”) In those pieces, I even “predicted” the sort of trouble we’re seeing now. Yet, despite that gloom, I was, and remain, a hawk. I am hawk because I believe that the danger of nuclear terror and nuclear blackmail remain real, and because I am convinced that negotiations from weakness, grand bargains, and unilateral retreats are powerless to defuse these threats. In short, I am a gloomy hawk because I believe that neither hawks nor doves have any viable near-term solutions to the problem we now face.
Globalization, economic advance, and technology are at the root of our dilemma. It is remarkable that 9/11 meant more civilian casualties from a foreign foe than this country had ever experienced at a blow. Without the movement of Middle Easterners to Europe (to learn our languages, take our classes, etc.), without our modern mastery of building technology and air travel, 9/11 could not have happened. Recall that the plan of the first, failed blast in 1993 was to topple one World Trade Center tower into the other, bringing both down on surrounding buildings for a possible total of 200,000 dead. This was the approximate combined total of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 1993 terrorists were consciously focused on that precedent, wanting to inflict nuclear-level damage on the United States.
The destruction of the World Trade Center raised the possibility that a rogue state might supply terrorists with a nuclear bomb, or enough material to make such a bomb. Already, there was an alliance between a state (Afghanistan) and a terrorist organization. But in the war between Israel and Hezbollah, we’ve seen a further step toward the feared pattern. Hezbollah rockets have already inflicted far more damage and disruption on Israeli civilians than attacks in any previous Middle Eastern war. That is because military technology is getting ever cheaper, more advanced, and more available, and because of a military alliance between a supplying state (Iran) and a terrorist organization.
So we are already seeing a terrorist-executed proxy war against the West using advanced technology supplied by a rogue state. It only remains for a nuclear device to replace the cheap rockets. Iran is working on that. This is why Europe, led by France, is moving into the American corner. The internal Islamist terror Europe had hoped to avoid by distancing itself from the United States is happening anyway. And Europe fears that a terrorist-supplied Iranian bomb, a nuclear-armed Iranian missile, or an Iranian attempt to corner the world’s oil supply through nuclear blackmail, pose direct threats to the continent itself.
Our attack on Saddam was the easiest way to create a credible threat of force against Iran and North Korea, while also cutting out Saddam’s own capacity to build or buy (from Korea and/or the A. Q. Kahn network) his own nuclear weapons. For this reason, it needed doing. Given the immense dangers faced by the West, and compared to our sacrifices in World War II and Korea, 3,000 casualties is not an excessive cost (tragic as these losses are). Yet our domestic divisions, and our inability to pacify Iraq have largely (although not, I believe, entirely) canceled out the deterrent message of the invasion.
Without a credible threat of force (and maybe even with a credible threat), there is simply no way that negotiations, “grand bargains,” or unilateral withdrawals will accomplish anything. Israel had about as credible a threat as anyone could. Given its foes’ rejection of a reasonable American-brokered deal, Israel tried unilateral withdrawal instead. Now look what’s happened. The depth of the Moslem world’s failure to adjust to modernity, the profundity of its need for scapegoats, the seeming boundlessness of its willingness to accept the death and destruction of its own in exchange for the “honor” of “revenge,” are difficult for Americans to acknowledge. Read “A Middle Way” (by David Warren in the Ottawa Citizen) and you will see that the Western public is systematically sheltered from the sort of news that turns people into gloomy hawks.
At Newsday, typically dovish Middle East Studies professor Fawaz Gerges says, “Hezbollah has risen to fill a social need.” I find Gerges’s vision of a solution in the Middle East utterly naive. He pretends that Hezbollah is not standing as a proxy for Iran, and acts as though a little bit of forceful negotiating can prod Hezbollah into disarming, and Israel and its Arab foes into a comprehensive settlement. But Israel has already made the sort of gestures that ought to have created momentum for peace. Instead, it’s gotten more attacks, and the persistent calls for its destruction so chillingly described by David Warren.
On one critical point, however, Gerges is right. If liberals are lost in wishful thinking about the prospects of negotiated settlements and nuclear containment, conservatives are naive about the possibility of ending terror by a decisive military blow. Gerges is right that Hezbollah is not some finite terror force, but the expression of the will and aspirations of a massive portion of the Lebanese people. As such, it is unlikely to be bombed out of existence.
Gerges makes the doves’ favorite point: bombing and war only breed more terrorists. True enough, but only because the underlying cultural dilemma of Muslim modernity has created a need for scapegoats. War ought to produce the realization that peaceful compromise is the way out. Instead it produces the opposite. Gestures for peace fare no better. Withdraw or attack, the results are the same: more hatred, more terror, more war. Compromise and settlement have been ruled out from the start by a pervasive ideology, an ideology that is a product of the underlying inability to reconcile Islam with modernity.
This means that the entire Western world now stands in a position roughly analogous to that of Israel: locked in an essentially permanent struggle with a foe it is impossible either to placate, or to entirely destroy — a foe who demands our own destruction, and whose problems are so deep they would not be solved even by victory.
We can leave Iraq, as the Israelis left Lebanon. But we’ll likely be back, there or somewhere else, before long. Some say our army should wait among the Kurds, striking selectively in the rest of Iraq, only when al Qaeda returns. That’s a plan. Yet its likely to end up where Israel is in Lebanon, especially if al Qaeda starts kidnapping American soldiers with cross-border raids into the “Kurdish entity.”
Meanwhile, short of a preemptive war, Iran is bound to get the bomb. No grand bargain or set of economic sanctions can deter it — especially now that Iran is convinced of its success in creating havoc for the West, and in consolidating popular support through its proxy attacks on Western interests. As Ian Bremmer reports in “What the Israeli-Hezbollah War Means for Iran,”
Iran is convinced it’s winning, while America and Europe are increasingly convinced that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an intolerable danger to their interests. “Imagine…how much more dangerous the war in Lebanon would be if Iran had a nuclear weapon.”
The West is on a collision course with Iran. There will either be a preemptive war against Iran’s nuclear program, or an endless series of hot-and-cold war crises following Iran’s acquisition of a bomb. And an Iranian bomb means further nuclear proliferation to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as a balancing move by the big Sunni states. With all those Islamic bombs floating around, what are the chances the U.S. will avoid a nuclear terrorist strike over the long-term?
You don’t believe that dovishness and negotiations will fail? Just wait till President Hillary tries to buy off the Iranians with a “grand bargain.” Just wait till a nuclear Iran is unleashed to make further mischief. A seemingly futile and endless occupation of Lebanon once split Israel down the middle, breeding an entire generation of Israeli doves. Now Israel is a united nation of gloomy hawks, transformed by the repeated failure of every gesture of peace, and by the reality of their implacable foe. (See “Praying for Hummus, Getting Hamas.”) I’m betting that someday we’ll all be gloomy hawks, too. As for me, I’m already there.
– Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.