The Good Ol' Days That Never Were

This column was written by Victor Davis Hanson.

"Mess," "fiasco," "disaster," "blunder," and "catastrophe."

Fill in the blanks with almost any stock noun of gloom these days when speaking about Iraq.

For finger-in-the-wind politicians, writing off Iraq is mere throat-clearing before moving on to any discussion of immigration reform or taxes. For ahead-of-the-curve pundits, starting out with "The failure in Iraq" is like opening their browser before daily pontificating. No need of explanation or empiricism, one just gets things out of the way at the very beginning with our new postmodern ritual.

Usually the more vehemently one used to clamor for the idea of removing Saddam Hussein — such as a Sen. Harry Reid or an Andrew Sullivan — the more now they are likely to use superlatives in damning the enterprise.

That there are 160,000 Americans — at the moment in an enormous offensive against al Qaeda — fighting to save Iraqi democracy means little, as evocation of pullouts, withdrawals, and timetables is mixed in with the language of defeat, despair, and finger-pointing.

That the war has morphed once again into one largely against al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists is lost on critics. All the old bogeymen — Ashcroft, Bremmer, Feith, Libby, Pearl, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz — are gone. But the media and opposition searches for new ones to blame for a policy they largely once endorsed. Witness the new slurring of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Pace as incompetent and Gen. Petraeus — our most innovative commander in a generation — as less than candid and not in touch with operations under his command.

But then few have offered any consistent policy of what we are to do after Iraq. Once again generalities — best mouthed by John Edwards — about multilateralism, restoring American popularity abroad, working with allies — are thrown out, as if the world will be safer and more harmonious once we return to some mythical Democratic past. By default that could only mean something akin to the foreign policy of our last two such presidents, Messrs. Carter and Clinton.

Have we gone mad in our amnesia about that awful past? The epithet "the Great Satan" was coined out of hatred for the diplomatic efforts of Jimmy Carter. Do we want Andrew Young back praising the humanitarianism of Khomeini?

Bin Laden started out his 1996 promise to slaughter Americans with the warning to a sober and judicious Secretary of Defense Perry "I say to you William…" — in furor over the basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia.

Al Gore weighed in on the aftermath of the Gulf War by damning the senior Bush — but for doing too little, allowing Saddam to stay in power, and proceed to acquire nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction.

Just as journalists, generals, and politicians rush to get into print another tell-all, I-know-the-answers book about the "disaster" in Iraq, so too in the 1990s the mini-Middle East publishing industry used to be devoted to equally furious attacks on realism, neo-isolation, and cynicism of Republicans and conservatives for an array of sins — sacrificing the Kurds and Shiites, not supporting Democratic reformers abroad, leaving Saddam in power, failing to prod Gulf sheikdoms to liberalize, cynically prodding on the Iran-Iraq war, etc.

What is lost, then, in the present pre-election hysteria and the repositioning on Iraq, is that there were never any good American choices in the Middle East. The present ones in Iraq and Afghanistan came about only from 9/11 and a general consensus that the failures of the past had led to that mass murder — and thus a new course of action was needed to replace both the liberal appeasement and conservative realism that had worked in the interest of bin Ladenism.

Legitimate debate is necessary about the mistakes in Iraq, as it is about the blunders of every war. But before writing off Iraq as lost, unnecessary, or a result of some such conspiracy, we had better ask ourselves whether a return to the sermonizing of Carterism or Clintonian diplomacy by focus group and straw polls — or even cynical horse-trading of Jim Baker — is what we really want.

So here are questions to ponder as reactionaries yearn for a pre-Bush past. Imagine: One of the various foiled terrorist plots — a Fort Dix slaughter, a JFK airport attack, or the suicide teams ABC News claims are headed our way from Afghanistan — succeeds after 2008. Thousands of Americans die.

What does President Clinton or Obama do? Draft a tough federal indictment? Ask for a U.N. resolution condemning such violence? Count on a unified response with NATO, battle-seasoned after its heroic offensives in Afghanistan? Hope for help from the EU rapid-response force? Bomb the source where the jihadists trained (Gaza?, Pakistan? Syria? Iran?) — but only from 30,000 feet, and, as in 1998, without U.N. or congressional approval? Work with the Saudis and Egyptians and Mr. Abbas to curb such atypical zealots? Have John Edwards trot the globe to use his courtroom flair to win over allies?

Or imagine that Iran announces that it is going to set off a bomb in its desert. Do we resurrect the EU3? Ask Hans Blix to return as nuclear inspector with Mr. El-Baradei and others to assure us the test was genuine? Send Jimmy Carter to Teheran (or better, find an aged Ramsey Clark to return as a special envoy as in 1979?). Or maybe beseech the new U.N. head, Mr. Ki-Moon who just enlightened us that global warming (read the U.S.) — not Islamic Jihadism and age-old sub-Saharan thuggery — caused Darfur?

Or imagine the very real possibility of an Islamic takeover of Pakistan, in which a theocratic nuclear jihadist government becomes a Sunni version of Iran and begins to send tens of thousands of jihadists into Afghanistan. What to do? Put our eye back on the ball? Bomb whom and what?

The point is twofold. Our present policy, however poorly managed in postbellum Iraq, arose as a reaction both to the do-nothingism of past administrations, which, by general consensus, had emboldened al Qaeda to up its ante on 9/11, and the decades of amoral realism that propped up thugs and dictators who ruined their societies but blamed the ensuing mess on Americans and Jews.

After 9/11, we did not, as alleged, invade countries serially, but removed only two fascistic governments, the worst in the Middle East — both with a record of supporting enemies of the United States, and both of whom we had bombed or sent missiles against in the very recent past.

We did not leave after such punitive measures because we felt that the last time we did that, whether in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or Iraq in 1991, or Lebanon, or Somalia, things only got worse — and after 9/11 they might well get much worse. And unlike the bombing of 1998 in the Balkans, both operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were sanctioned by the U.S. Congress, discussed at the U.N., and widely supported by the American people.

Removing the Taliban and Saddam, and promoting constitutional governments in their places, were not the only options after 9/11, but they were good choices — if the desire was to address comprehensively a quarter-century of terrorism that was insidiously escalating both in frequency and vehemence.

If both governments can be stabilized even at this late date, the landscape in the Middle East from Lebanon to the West Bank will be much improved; if not, much worse. For those who wish to give up the struggle in Iraq, go home, and stay clear of the Middle East, a final question: What would Mr. Assad in Syria, al Qaeda in Iraq, President Ahmadinejad in Iran, or Hamas and Hezbollah wish us to do — and why?

And what in turn would Mr. Karzai, Mr. Maliki, the women educators of Iraq, the Lebanese democrats, the Syrian exiles, and the Iranian dissidents prefer? And which group should we in turn enlist as friends and which accept are our enemies?

It would be nice to go back to our pre-9/11 past, just as in a bloody 1944 the calm of 1937 looked to many of the starry-eyed far preferable, just as in the midst of the nuclear stand-off of 1962 we lamented the loss of the old "friendly" Russia and China of 1945.

But while our ancestors engaged in the same despair, the same blame-gaming that we so enjoy, they at least were not stupid enough to lose those far more deadly and dangerous wars. We can win like they did as well, but only if we face the future with confidence, and not pine for the return of a mythical past that never was.

By Victor Davis Hanson
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online