General David Petraeus — a sort of combination of Fabius Maximus (“unus homo…”) and Matthew Ridgway — has changed the entire Iraqi war, and thereby given us a breathing spell to reflect on our longer-term strategies of victory.
Most of the conventional pessimism about Iraq is being proven wrong. For example, the recently translated captured diary of the dead al-Qaeda terrorist — Abu Maysara, a senior adviser to Abu Ayyoub al-Masri — reveals a sort of hopelessness. The dead Maysara laments that al-Qaeda has lost the hearts and minds of the people to the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, while suffering terrible battlefield losses. Abu Maysara did not write as some civilian defeatist, the equivalent of our own Moveon.org antiwar protesters. He was instead a frontline fighter, once confident of victory in the field, but realistically broken by defeat — before he was killed.
For all the Western gloom, the forces trying to break up Iraq are not as strong as the fears of seeing it so trisected. Federal Iraq has survived Iranian subterfuge, the House of Saud terrorist subsidies, Turkish invasion, and Kurdish nationalism — and is still there. It won’t be quite Kansas, but the Iraqi state has a good chance to evolve into something no more violent than the usual Middle Eastern state, but without either murderous dictators or theocrats — or, of course, the genocidal murderer Saddam Hussein.
The combination of new American tactics, the surge, shared fear of Iran, vast oil revenues, sheer attrition of jihadists over the last five years, and growing Iraqi hatred of Wahhabi terrorists over the same period, have all led to a perfect storm for al-Qaeda. It now suffers the almost unbelievable humiliation of having Arab Muslims willingly join Americans to expel it from the ancient caliphate.
John McCain was pilloried for his “100 years” in Iraq quip. But the logic of some sort of longer-term presence still stands: Should we continue to bring brigades home slowly as the situation warrants, then the stationing of smaller contingents of Americans abroad in Iraq could become analogous to our presence in South Korea, Japan, the Balkans, or Europe, where deployments are no more dangerous, nor that much more costly than having them here in the United States. Far from being worn out, the U.S. military has evolved into the world’s only capable anti-insurgency military force — as we sadly see through contrast with the dismal performance of our NATO allies in Afghanistan.
On the other fronts, the outlook is not so encouraging. Iran was given a great gift with the National Intelligence Estimate’s de facto clean bill on nuclear proliferation, a finding that undermined almost all current multilateral efforts to embargo or boycott the theocracy until it is transparent about enrichment.
Somehow our politically tainted intelligence agencies argued the near laughable: claiming that Iran stopped making the bomb in 2003 (so that we need not worry now), and yet insisting that such abrupt cessation had nothing to do, as was true in the case of Libya, with our removal of Saddam Hussein (so that no one gets any credit). Far from drawing us back from the brink, the naïve and politicized findings — meant to restrain the much caricatured Bush — have instead only eroded much of the peaceful avenues to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon (Stanley Kurtz has argued here).
Stabilization in Iraq helps. So does regional Arab worries about Iran. But we are in a holding pattern with three or four unknowns that will ultimately determine whether Iran gets the bomb: What will Israel do? Will Russia, given its past Islamic problems, really want a nuclear theocracy on its border? Is Iran for a few months laying low and quiet, waiting for a change in administration, and with it the assurance that it can sneak through and offer the West its nuclear capacity as a fait accompli, as Pakistan did in 1998?
Oil remains our greatest wartime liability. Since the spikes started in 2003, trillions in wealth have been transferred from the producing nations of America, Europe, China, and India to the otherwise failed societies of the Arab Middle East, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. It is naïve to think that beneficiaries like Iran or Saudi Arabia will opt for the Dubai route of self-indulgent, but peaceable and largely humane development. For us, the transfer of such massive amounts of capital is both a cause and symptom of our financial vulnerability in a war in which global perceptions are everything — and the United States increasingly seen as an insolvent debtor, its enemies, like vultures on the ever lower branches, awaiting the massive stag below to finally stumble under its wounds.
Ironically our greatest asset is Middle Eastern greed, or the notion that pumping oil at $3 to $4 a barrel and selling it at, say, $50 is not enough for the House of Saud, when it can squeeze out $90. Only that permanent price gauging ensures that we won’t see a drop back to $20 a barrel, and with it a relaxation of our efforts to find new energies. Thus eventually both liberals with their Volvo SUVs and conservatives in their 4×4s will agree to develop nuclear power, flex and alternative fuels, gasification of coal, mandatory conservation, and increased oil exploration — and thereby free us from the current extortion, and at last dry up the petrodollars that feed the terrorists.
In terms of Western morale, the picture is likewise not so encouraging. Although the worst days of Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore have faded, American public opinion is inconsistent. It is angry over the cost of Iraq, but supports the Petraeus plan and rejects the Democratic alternative of mandatory withdrawal and subsequent defeat. It bridles at Guantanamo and wiretaps, but wants the protections of such surveillance and the Patriot Act in continuance. It complains about lost liberties, but neither explains in any detail how exactly we are no longer free nor appreciates that the nation has not experienced another 9/11, despite repeated terrorist attempts.
Immigrants from the Middle East, as least as we determine their sentiments in the media and the universities, complain about current U.S. policy, but rarely voice sustained appreciation of our system they fled to in rejection of their own. Opposition leaders bash Bush as preemptive, unilateral, and incompetent, but do not adduce any alternative peace plan for the Middle East, a new innovative strategy for Iran, a better way of handling Pakistan, new directions in Afghanistan, or something other than quick withdrawal from Iraq. What little we’ve seen and heard — Obama’s worldwide Muslim peace conference and call for an armed incursion into nuclear Pakistan, Pelosi’s visits to dictatorial Syria, Joe Biden’s trisection of sovereign Iraq — are more frightening than novel.
Abroad, the European public is more schizophrenic. It wants to make no sacrifices to stop the jihadists, but fears them terribly. It damns the U.S. as responsible for the tense, unpleasant global environment, but then — apparently in private — votes to ensure it has leaders favorable to us. Europeans offer moral lectures to Americans who are paying a great price in blood and treasure for constitutional alternatives in Iraq, even as their own elites in shameful timidity mortgage the Western Enlightenment to two-bit thuggish Islamists.
Afghanistan is not seen as a line in the sand to stop the spread of jihadism, but an embarrassing entanglement that can be blamed on George Bush’s inordinate anger following 9/11. The European attitude toward America seems to be “you must intervene in the Balkans to lead us in the fight against the twilight, but we won’t follow you into Afghanistan to battle against abject darkness.”
For those who thought that the level of European appeasement could not be surpassed following the Dutch murderers, the opera and cartoon fiascos, the pope’s remarks, or the Iranian kidnapping of British sailors, we now are to listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s admission that the implementation of sharia law in Britain is “unavoidable” and probably useful as well. Never was so much surrendered by so few to so many.
The new multicultural and relativist British elite in just a decade or so has managed to make in comparison the 12th-century England of Thomas Becket seem humane. In the last analysis, the real worries about the survival of the West in this war are not with America and its courageous twenty-something suburban kids in Anbar trying to offer something better than the sharia morality of the seventh century, but with the likes of sanctimonious and cowardly churchmen in England trying to spread it.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.