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Victor Davis Hanson

Monday, December 4, 2006

HH: Joined now by Victor Davis Hanson, professor of classics and military history. Professor Hanson, good to have you back. Thank you for joining us.

VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.

HH: You have this piece in National Review Online on Friday, now reprinted at War Stories: Two Versions of What We Should Do Next. What’s the reaction been to this?

VDH: I’ve had a lot of people call me and are sort of troubled by it. And again, it’s empirical. It’s descriptive. It’s trying to suggest that the view that probably you and I share is not the majority view in America today, that most people are trying to have a particularist view of the War On Terror, that if they grant some type of concessions with Syria, that’ll solve the problem in Lebanon, or grant some concessions to Ahmadinejad, will solve the Iranian, or maybe the West Bank, that these are not connected, there’s no such thing as Islamic-facism, or worldwide jihad, 9/11 was a fluke based on sanctuary in Afghanistan, we were not on our guard, Iraq is a mess. If we get out of Iraq, things will improve. And I think they’re tired, and I just tried to describe what I had distilled from reading over the last two or three weeks various columnists, and mostly Democratic position papers, but not always.

HH: I think it is a very descriptive piece. The most alarming aspect of it is not the description of the two camps, but that you credit one with being a majority opinion, and the other with the minority brief. You and I sign onto the minority brief, but the majority opinion, which I’ll walk through here in a moment, why do you believe it is now the majority opinion in the United States?

VDH: Because I think that we have seen since, really from 9/11…I was just…and to prove that, I went back and looked at press accounts of Afghanistan, that we had been told that America either can’t be successful when it uses military power, or if it does, it’ll be counterproductive. We’ve seen constant attacks on America from Europe. We’ve seen a harangue from the Middle East against the United States and Israel. And that we haven’t got a sense that we’ve won decisively in Iraq. And you put all of that together, and the American people are kind of exhausted.

HH: That’s very troubling. One paragraph in the majority opinion that you are attempting to ascribe, “If ever there was a need for strong military action invasion, that time is clearly passed, at least for now. The long term negative effects would be more than outweighed by any short term benefits, as we see from the repercussions of the mess in Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan.” Once again, I want to emphasize, this is not what you believe, but you’re attempting to accurately convey what majority opinion in America believes.

VDH: Absolutely, and the proof of the pudding is that I got some e-mail from people who said thank you for summing up how I feel. At least you understand that this is what I feel, and that we’re in the majority, and you’re honest to admit that.

HH: That is pretty amazing. Three other observations you wrote, trying to reflect fairly what the other side believes. “Hamas and its rivals exist largely because of the occupied West Bank, Hezbollah is not really a global terrorist network, but an offshoot of trouble in Lebanon, and Iran is a danger, but not a fatal one. It can be balanced by Sunni sheikdoms in the Gulf, and checked by a multi-lateral sponsor, and enforced sanctions authorized by the United Nations.” That the appeasement party does believe that, but Victor Davis Hanson, do they really believe it? Or is it convenient to believe?

VDH: That’s a good question, Hugh. I think what they believe it, as long as they feel that it’s convenient, and it’s okay to believe that, but the power, economic, military and cultural of the United States as such, that it gives them the leeway or the opportunity to believe that. But deep down inside, they always count on the fact that if we have another 9/11, or if we have a grave attack by one of these Islamicists on our interest overseas, that we still have the power, despite their constant criticism, to protect their insular lives. That’s what’s so strange about it all.

HH: It’s also, Victor Davis Hanson, it seems to me a set up for that when that next attack comes, an argument not that the minority brief was correct, but that they waited too long to impose the majority opinion, and as you say, “Anti-Americanism in the Middle East and Europe is largely a phenomenon of George Bush’s idiosyncratic manners, and his once thought advocacy of preemption and unilateralism.” In other words, they will blame the minority briefers for the attack that comes.

VDH: Oh, yes. That’s absolutely…they’ll believe it, because they feel that we have led them into the quagmire in Iraq. Remember this is a view…they’re talking about a country that once fought Italy, Japan and Germany all at once, defeated them, and then turned around and started the Cold War…I mean, the Cold War resistence of the Soviet Union, and they’re saying that this same country, now twice the size, with much more material and military wealth, can’t fight in Afghanistan and Iraq at once. That’s sort of the poverty of their imagination, that we’ve taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, got bogged down in Iraq, and now we’re helpless. We need Jim Baker to come in, we need Syria to come in, we need Iran to come in to help us. It’s absurd, but it seems to be the prevailing opinion now.

HH: Now as you dictate the minority brief, in a very powerful and coherent fashion, you walk down through the assumptions of the minority party, which includes you and me. One of them is we really are in a global war, it’s dimensions are hard to conceptualize, since our enemies, aided and abetted by sympathetic Middle Eastern dictatorships, claim no national affinity. And it also warns about the threat from WMD. How widespread is the understanding of the threat of WMD, Victor Davis Hanson?

VDH: Well, I think that people have made a really bad logical error, and that is they think that because there was somehow not WMD in Iraq, therefore that the whole war…when you hear the word WMD now, it’s sort of considered a chimera of just nothing that was true. And we know that we found more in Libya than we did even in Iraq. We know that Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons. And so, I think you and I are just surprised that given the rhetoric from the Islamicists, and given the centrifuges in Iran, that we haven’t seen somebody from Hezbollah come across the Mexican border…I mean, that’s what, I think, all of us deep down inside deeply fear. But the whole question of WMD is now so polluted, and so polarized, that most Americans have sort of laughed it off. And that’s a bad mistake.

HH: I also tend to believe, and this is not part of the piece, that foreign affairs are dynamic and not static, and that when you’re on the offense, countries like Iran and Syria are on the defense, and Libya gives up their WMD. And then when you go over to the defensive, countries like Iran and Syria go over to the offensive, and Libya regrets how it acted.

VDH: Absolutely. When I wrote this column, I went back very carefully, and read news accounts of what the general global perception was of Iran and Syria in April of 2003. And it was just amazing to see that both of them wanted to talk to the United States, they were critical of our efforts in Iraq, but they were very hesitant to offend us. People in Europe had come around. There were even articles in places like the Guardian, saying maybe George Bush was right after all. And this is when we saw Pakistan come clean with the atomic roguery. We saw Qadafi start to change. And you’re absolutely right. When you were are in fourth quarter, and you’re ahead, and you think you’re just going to play it safe, you always lose, and that’s what we’re trying…we can’t do that.

HH: Victor Davis Hanson, some critics of the Baker-Hamilton commission are calling it the Baker-Hamilton-Chamberlain commission. Is that fair?

VDH: I don’t know yet. I’m trying to withhold judgment. But what I’m upset about is this new attitude that the known failures in the past offer a perceived remedy for the perceived failures in the present. We know what didn’t work in the past, and that was calling for Shia and Kurds to revolt, and then leaving them high and dry, and allowing Saddam to have gunships. We know that twelve years of no-fly zones really didn’t do much. 350,000 sortees. We know that backing Gorbacev over Yeltsin, or arming the Mujahideen, or playing Iran off…All this real politick we’ve seen before, Iran-Contra, et cetera. And it didn’t make the United States secure. And coupled with Clintonian appeasement, it was the logical precursors to 9/11. I just can’t believe that we’re going to go back there. I did read a position paper that Brzezinski and Gates wrote about Iran. And it was very disturbing, because it assumed that we A) had never talked to Iran before, and B) we could, after our perceived weakness, find a solution with them. I don’t think that’s possible.

HH: What about the possibility, Victor Davis Hanson, discounted, I think, by you somewhat, when last we spoke three weeks ago, that W. is just sitting there waiting for the report to come in, to read it very nicely, and then dismiss it. And then in fact, his Fox interview today, and other statements he’s made, indicate he has not changed an inch in his positions, even if he did let Rumsfeld go.

VDH: I think he knows that he’s going to…all…what everybody has said, all the criticism that he has endured, he’s got about the worst of it. And he knows that if he buckles in, and he withdraws, or he sets a timetable, then he’s going to lose the support of the people who’ve stayed with him, and he’s going to lose the support of history. So I think he’s wise enough to realize that Iraq is not lost, that if he can stabilize this, and he can work something out from a position of strength with Syria and Iran, and get Lebanon stabilized, and we don’t have another 9/11, that’s his ticket to posterity. But doing what the Baker-Hamilton commission might advocate is a way to really ensure that he’s not going to be remembered as a strong president. I don’t think he’s naive. I don’t think he’ll do that.

HH: Last question, Victor Davis Hanson. Daily Mail in London quotes Qaddafi…not Qaddafi, but Kofi Annan today as saying that Iraqis are much worse off than they were under Saddam. How do you respond to something like that?

VDH: Well, I mean, it’s just echoing what…Jay Rockefeller said the same thing, if you remember. And it’s the same argument that we hear all the time, that the Soviet Union, after the Bolshevik Revolution, might have been more stable than under the czar. Hitler, in 1939, was better than the Weimar Republic. Dan Rather said the same thing when he tried to go back into Iraq. He said things were much quieter and more orderly under Saddam. And that’s the price of autocracy, when people are killed in the shadows, and we don’t hear about it, and there’s the phantom of stability. People are attracted to that. And then when it’s messy, and they’re trying to argue for a future, and it’s democratic, then it doesn’t seem as attractive. But you and I know it’s rubbish.

HH: It is. Victor Davis Hanson, thank you so much. to get a copy of War Stories: Two Versions Of What We Should Do Next. It is descriptive, and it is descriptive to a T. Make sure you read it.

End of interview.

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