January 14, 2005, 7:30 a.m.
Triangulating the War
Yesterday’s genius, today’s fool, tomorrow’s what?
Reading the pages of foreign-policy journals, between the long tracts on Bush's "failures" and neoconservative "arrogance," one encounters mostly predictions of defeat and calls for phased withdrawal — always with resounding criticism of the American "botched" occupation.
Platitudes follow: "We can't just leave now," followed by no real advice on how a fascist society can be jumpstarted into a modern liberal republic. After all, there is no government handbook entitled, "Operation 1A: How to remove a Middle East fascist regime in three weeks, reconstruct the countryside, and hold the first elections in the nation's history — all within two years." Almost all who supported the war now are bailing on the pretext that their version of the reconstruction was not followed: While a three-week war was their idea, a 20-month messy reconstruction was surely someone else's. Yesterday genius is today's fool — and who knows next month if the elections work? Witness Afghanistan where all those who recently said the victory was "lost" to warlords are now suddenly quiet.
Heads You Lose, Tails We Win
Indeed, from the oscillating analyses of Iraq, the following impossible picture often emerges from our intelligentsia. It was a fatal error to disband the Iraqi army. That led to lawlessness and a loss of confidence in the American ability to restore immediate order after Saddam's fall. Yet it was also a fatal error to keep some Baathists in the newly constituted army. They were corrupt and wished reform to fail — witness the Fallujah Brigade that either betrayed us or aided the enemy. So we turned off the Sunnis by disbanding the army — and yet somehow turned off the Shiites by keeping some parts of it.
Massive construction projects were hogged by gargantuan American firms, ensconced in the Green Zone that did not engage either local Iraqi workers or small companies and thus squandered precious good will. Or, indigenous contractors proved irresponsible and unreliable, evidence for why Iraq was in such bad shape to begin with. And when we did put exclusive reliance on them, it ensured only lackadaisical and half-hearted reconstruction.
We also lost hearts and minds by using GPS bombs to obliterate houses full of killers and take out blocks of insurgents. And yet we lost hearts and minds by failing to act decisively and de facto turning over large enclaves to terrorists and Saddamites whom we were afraid to root out. Elections should have been held earlier; no, they must be delayed since they come too soon when the country is still unsecured.
Our helmeted soldiers with sunglasses are holed up in enclaves, don't mingle, and perpetuated the heavy-handed image of snooty occupiers. But leaving the Green Zone is an open invitation to kidnapping and worse. So we are both too well hidden and yet not hidden enough. Embedded media gave us a real-time picture of the fighting. But (if one is conservative) it left open the opportunity for sensationalism on the part of wannabe crusaders, and (if one is liberal) it created too close a psychological bond with the soldiers that impaired objectivity.
It was a mistake to postpone Iraqi sovereignty for so long; but it is an equal mistake to rush into elections while the country is so insecure. The CIA is impotent, out-of-touch, and clownish; somehow it mind-controlled Allawi, Chalabi, and a host of other Iraqi "puppets."
The litany from the mercurial Beltway always goes on: There were enough troops to take out Saddam in three weeks, but not enough to restore order to the countryside — but still too many that resulted in too high an American profile on the streets of Baghdad. The transformations of Donald Rumsfeld (this week's genius, last week's fool) have left us stripped down and bereft of the muscle needed. Yet new, more mobile brigades in strikers and special forces with laptops are preferable to old armored divisions on the streets of Iraqi.
We cannot flee, but must not stay. Iraqis publicly say we should leave, but privately beg us to remain. We were after cheap oil, but gas prices somehow climbed almost immediately after we went in. Democracy won't work with these people, but somehow we are seeing three elections in the wake of the Taliban, Arafat, and Saddam.
There are many constants in all this pessimistic confusion — beside the fact that we are becoming a near hysterical society. First, our miraculous efforts in toppling the Taliban and Saddam have apparently made us forget war is always a litany of mistakes. No conflict is conducted according to either antebellum planning or can proceed with the benefit of hindsight. Iraq was not Yemen or Qatar, but rather the most wicked regime in the world, in the heart of the Arab world, full of oil, terrorists, and mass graves. There were no helpful neighbors to keep a lid on their own infiltrating jihadists. Instead we had to go into the heart of the caliphate, take out a mass murderer, restore civil society after 30 years of brutality, and ward off Sunni and Baathist fomenters in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria — all the while keeping out Iranian-Shiite agents bent on stopping democracy. The wonder is not that there is violence and gloom in Iraq, but that less than two years after Saddam was removed, elections are still on track.
The Follies of World War II
Second, our very success creates ever increasing expectations of perfection for a postmodern America used to instant gratification. We now look back in awe at World War II, the model of military success, in which within four years an unprepared United States won two global wars, at sea, on the ground, and in the air, in three continents against Japan, Italy, and Germany, and supplied both England and the Soviet Union. But our forefathers experienced disaster after disaster in a tale of heartbreak, almost as inglorious as the Korean mess or Vietnam tragedy. And they did things to win we perhaps claim we would now not: Shoot German prisoners in the Bulge, firebomb Axis cities, drop the bomb — almost anything to stop fascists from slaughtering even more millions of innocents.
Our armored vehicles were deathtraps and only improved days before the surrender. American torpedoes were often duds. Unescorted daylight bombing proved a disaster, but continued. Amphibious assaults like Anzio and Tarawa were bloodbaths and emblematic of terrible planning and command. The recapture of Manila was clumsy and far too costly. Okinawa was the worst of all operations, and yet was begun just over fourth months before the surrender — without any planning for Kamikazes who were shortly to kill 5,000 American sailors. Patton, the one general that could have ended the western war in 1944, was relieved and then subordinated to an auxiliary position with near fatal results for the drive from Normandy; mediocrities like Mark Clark flourished and were promoted. Admiral King resisted the life-saving convoy system and unnecessarily sacrificed merchant ships; while Bull Halsey almost lost his unprepared fleet to a storm.
The war's aftermath seemed worse, to be overseen by an untried president who was considered an abject lightweight. Not-so-quite collateral damage had ruined entire cities. Europe nearly starved in winter 1945-6. Millions were on the road in mass exoduses. After spending billions to destroy Nazi Germany we had to spend billions more to rebuild it — and repair the devastation it had wrought on its neighbors. Our so-called partisan friends in Yugoslavia and Greece turned out to be hard-core Communist killers. Soon enough we learned that the guerrillas in the mountains of Europe whom we had idolized, in fact, fought as much for Communism as against fascism — but never for democracy.
But at least there was clear-cut strategic success? Oh? The war started to keep Eastern Europe free of Nazis and ended up ensuring that it was enslaved by Stalinists. Poland was neither free in 1940 nor in 1946. By early 1946 we were already considering putting former Luftwaffe pilots in American jets — improved with ample borrowing from Nazi technology — to protect Europe from the Red Army carried westward on GM trucks. We put Nazis on trials for war crimes even as we invited their scientists to our shores to match their counterparts in the Soviet Union who were building even more lethal weapons to destroy us. Our utopian idea of a global U.N. immediately deteriorated into a mess — decades of vetoes in the Security Council by Stalinists and Maoists, even as former colonial states turned thugocracies in the General Assembly ganged up on Israel and the survivors of the Holocaust.
After Americans had liberated France and restored his country, General de Gaulle created the myth of the French resistance and immediately triangulated with our enemies to reforge some pathetic sort of French grandeur. An exhausted England turned over to us a collapsing empire, with the warning that it might all turn Communist. Tired of the war and postbellum costs, Americans suddenly were asked to wage a new Cold War to keep a shrinking West and its allies free. The Department of War turned into the Department of Defense, along with weird new things like the U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, Food for Peace, Alliance for Progress, Voice of America, and thousands of other costly entities never dreamed of just a few years earlier.
And yet our greatest generation thought by and large they had done pretty well. We in contrast would have given up in despair in 1942, New York Times columnists and NPR pundits pontificating "I told you so" as if we were better off sitting out the war all along.
Finally, the United States has a number of options in Iraq. In fact, the paradoxes are ever more confronting our enemies. There is a glaring problem for the terrorists in Iraq: 75 percent of the country wants elections. The Sunni clerics wish to delay them on the strange logic that they either cannot or will not stop their brethren who are trying to derail the voting through which their cause will lose. But such appeals appear increasingly empty — almost like the Secessionists complaining about Northern voters in 1860 might imperil the Union. And no one is all that sure that there really is a purist Sunni block of millions of obstructionists, rather than just ordinary Iraqis who want to vote and are in fear of extremists who claim their allegiance. Saudi Arabia unleashed terrorists to stop democracy in Iraq, and is now worried their young Frankensteins hate their creators just as much.
So we are inching ahead as global television soon will air an elected and autonomous government fighting fascists for the chance of democracy. If the Kurds and the Shiite majorities vote for us to leave, then we must — but to do so would be to ensure the return of the Baathists, the domination of Wahhabi fundamentalism, or the Lebanonization of the country. And so they probably won't. There is much talk of an Iranian takeover, but no evidence that an Iraqi Shiite sees himself as more an Iranian than an Arab.
All this we cannot see at the present as we in our weariness lament the losses of almost 1,100 combat dead and billions committed to people who appear from 30-second media streams to be singularly ungracious and not our sort of folk. We dwell on unmistakable lapses, never on amazing successes — just as we were consumed with Afghanistan in its dark moments, but now ignore its road to success. But never mind all this: The long-term prospects are still as bright as things seem gloomy in the short-term — but only if we emulate our grandfathers and press on with the third Middle East election in the last six months.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.