Victor Davis Hanson on the 5 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and five years hence.
HH: From the Supreme Court and the gun case to the 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq with none other than military historian and classicist, Victor Davis Hanson. You can read all of Professor Hanson’s work at www.victorhanson.com, the Private Papers there. Professor Hanson, welcome back. I just last hour spent a long time talking with E.J. Dionne about whether or not the world is better off than it was five years ago. What’s your assessment?
VDH: Oh, I think it is. I think there’s a lot of barometers that would tell us that would be true. There was an interesting Pew Poll in June, and I don’t know if you saw it last year, where the approval ratings of bin Laden throughout countries in the Middle East had plunged by thirty points, as well as support for suicide bombing had plunged. We don’t have the No-Fly zones, we don’t have the extinction of the Marsh Arabs, we don’t have the genocide of the Kurds and Shia. We have a constitutional government in place. We shut down the laboratory of Dr. Khan. Mysteriously, about six weeks after Saddam Hussein was shown captured on TV, we had the Libyan disclosures of their nuclear shenanigans. And I don’t believe the National Intelligence Estimate that it suggested that just about the same time, Iran took a different track on uranium enrichment. So there’s hope, whereas before in the Middle East, there was just the alternative between theocracy and dictatorship.
HH: Now Professor Hanson, the disconnect I get with folks like E.J. Dionne and my guest yesterday, Robin Wright, who’s written a fine new book on the Middle East, is that they don’t connect the degree of difficulty in the problem in the region, which is the spread of radical jihadism, and these repressive governments, with it being ameliorated by regime change in places like Iraq. It’s as though they decry the problem of repression and the spread of jihadism, and they denounce the only solutions that’s got a prayer of working and is working in Iraq. Is that a fundamental cognitive dissidence? Or is it a political posture, that they really do understand we’re better off than we were?
VDH: I think there’s two things going on. One is that people are very deeply suspicious of George Bush, and we’re in an election year, so everything has to be bad about Iraq. But on a deeper level, affluent, elite Americans have a sense of utopian perfection. Anything that’s not perfect can’t be good. And so they apply a standard of excellence toward the United States that we in this generation, much less any other country, could never meet. So we take out Saddam in three weeks, and we’re supposed to have Carmel, California in three more weeks. When that doesn’t happen, you can appeal to reason and suggest that going into the heart of the ancient caliphate, seven thousand miles away, with duplicitous neighbors like the Saudis or the Iranians or the Jordanians or the Syrians, and sticking to it, and creating a constitutional government, and seeing that government still be viable, that’s an amazing achievement, especially if you juxtapose it to our losses and cost in places as diverse as Korea, Vietnam, World War II, the Civil War. It’s almost as if we have historical amnesia, and we put these impossible barometers of success on us, and it’s metrics of success. It’s not good. It creates a demoralization, and almost a Pavlovian rejection of anything we try to do. It’s cynical, sarcastic, nihilistic, finally.
HH: Of course, E.J. also brought up that it’s been much harder than we’d been led to believe it would be, that it’s been much more expensive than we though it would be, and that it’s gone on longer than we though it would. Now I can quarrel with each of those assertions, if you go back and look at very discrete statements. But clearly, the expectations did build up that it would be Afghanistan part two, and that did the Bush administration fail to manage the expectations here, Victor Hanson? Or did…
VDH: They did. I think the idea was that everybody had told them that if they went into Afghanistan, they were going to meet the fate of the British and Russian empires. And that was people on the left in this country, as well as in Europe. And when they took out the Taliban in seven weeks, then people said this is a tribal society that’s hopeless. And within the year, they had the loya jirga, and they had a constitutional framework. So then they said that Iraq would always be easier, because it was secular, we had beat them before, the climate, the terrain was more conducive for conventional warfare. And lo and behold, we took out Saddam in three weeks. And by that metric, seven weeks led to a year, and so three weeks was going to lead to six months of constitutional government. And that didn’t happen. And they had so raised expectations, everybody had, that anything less than perfection was going to be seen as defeat. And I think they did not manage the new stream, they didn’t articulate the difficulties involved, and they didn’t remind people that in war, everything is fickle and unpredictable. They were in a…two things were happening. They were in a euphoria with a brilliant three-week victory, and they were so beaten down by the criticism…remember, some of the estimates on the left, and in Europe, were that we were going to lose seven to eight thousand people, there were going to be two million refugees. And when that didn’t happen immediately, they sort of thought well, the left has discredited themselves, and we have no obligation to offer a counter-narrative.
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HH: Professor Hanson, I am struck by the irresponsibility of the American media in covering this election, and it happened on this show on Monday. John McCain calls us from Amman, Jordan, to give us a first-hand account of what he’s just seen, and what he’s just spoken with Maliki and General David Petraeus. In the course of that, he makes a statement that he will never meet with the leader of Iran unless and until he stops killing Americans. That’s the short version. He goes on to say that Iran’s been a very bad actor in Iraq, and that al Qaeda have gone from Iraq into Iran to receive training, and they come back. Now there’s some argument that that’s wrong, but there’s some arguments that it’s right. In any event, it wasn’t central to his argument. His argument was about Iran being a very bad force in the region. And yet, the American media, abetted by the Democratic Party, begins to pummel McCain for an alleged misstatement showing that he’s not sufficiently aware of conditions in Iraq. In other words, they trivialize, again and again, the issue, the stakes…and you know, I’m not a big McCain fan, but my God, the guy’s on the front line getting the information he needs. Can a republic survive a media that trivializes everything?
VDH: Well, it’s hard to distinguish that, but remember that there have been al Qaeda people that have gone into Iran. We know that.
VDH: And the old canard, that Shia and Sunni don’t work together is not operative, to use a Nixonian phrase. It’s just not true. They have alliances of convenience that are created and dissipated at various times. But their common enemies are Westerners. So they have worked together. And they did the same thing, remember, with the so-called hundred years. McCain had made a valid point that if Americans aren’t being killed, and there’s a stable government, then stationing troops overseas is analogous to Korea or Italy or Germany or Japan. And in theory, it could go on as far as a hundred years. He didn’t mean that literally, but they took that out of context as well, because after all, Hugh, if we had this conversation a year ago, we would have expected right now in the campaign narrative, that Iraq would dominate all other news. I saw an op-ed the other day, and the headline said how to resolve the quagmire, and then I read down and it was about the Democratic convention. It wasn’t about Iraq.
HH: Yup. Yeah, it’s about…
VDH: And if somebody had heard that there’s a Marine recruitment center blown up in Times Square, we probably would have thought it was al Qaeda four years ago. Now, we assume it’s an anti-war group.
VDH: So the whole situation has changed, because Iraq has improved so radically.
HH: But I guess my question is do you foresee a media that will be responsible to its task about the seriousness in which we live, and if not, can a republic survive that way?
VDH: I think, I’m not sure about that answer, but I do think that it’ll be incumbent upon people who are conservative or to the right of center who are conducting wars, are going to have a greater obligation and responsibility to win quickly and to be especially articulate and eloquent in explaining, because they’re not going to get a pass. And that’s not necessarily novel in American history, whether it’s Wilson or Roosevelt or LBJ or Truman. We’ve all operated in a democracy under the assumption that people who are on the left have a natural abhorrence of war, and they only go to war reluctantly. People on the right have a sort of Marshall bellicosity. And so Bill Clinton can go into the Balkans, didn’t even go to Congress, didn’t even go to the United Nations, to this day, doesn’t have a treaty with any Balkan country allowing Americans to be stationed there, and yet those arguments have been used against Bush. So if you’re going to go to war, I think if you’re a conservative, you’re going to have to do it quickly, and you’re going to have to marshal all of your rhetorical skills, or you’re not going to get much window from the U.S. media.
HH: Is McCain doing a good job of that in your view?
VDH: Yeah, I think he is. I heard him the other day on the news networks, and he’s very good at that. And after all, we’re in an election year, and what we’re seeing is the chickens come home to roost, as far as the Democratic candidates, because they have stitched together this coalition of radical feminists, radical gays, Latinos, Hispanics and African-American radicals. And we’re seeing the inevitable consequences of that with the Wright fiasco, and then the lame excuses to explain it away. So they’re going to have a lot of problems, especially, as I think, Obama will be the nominee, and people are going to have buyer’s remorse by September.
HH: Now I want to talk a little bit about five years ago, and five years hence. We may not be exactly where we thought we would be, and the toll has been far higher than we expected, and more expensive than we expected. But I think we’re a lot closer to where we thought we would be than not. I think it’s been…
VDH: I agree. I think that we know what…for good or for evil, there’s no WMD in Iraq. But there’s also no WMD in Libya, and Pakistan’s proliferation program shut down.
VDH: We know that al Qaeda has been terribly damaged worldwide, but especially in Iraq, and we know that it’s more importantly been discredited, that its prime constituency, Wahabi Sunnis in Anbar, have joined with us to rout them out of the country. And that would be inconceivable in 2003 that anybody would suggest that, that an Arab Sunni population would ask the United States to join them to attack al Qaeda. That’s happened as well. And so there’s been a lot of positive things that the media’s not reporting. But I think as we see Iraq continue to stabilize, we’re going to start to see a consensus in that region, and in Europe, in the United States. After all, after 2003, the Europeans had tried to triangulate against us. They said we were going to have problems in the Middle East. It’s Europe that cannot put on an opera, that can’t write a novel, that can’t publish a cartoon, that can’t have a Papal exegesis, that is faced with terrorism. It’s not the United States.
HH: Last question, is the American military more competent, more capable, more power today than it was five years ago? The left likes to argue it’s broken. I think it’s evolved to an even more effective war fighter…
VDH: Oh, you’re absolutely right. We know that it’s not broken, and that it’s the most powerful military in the world. What we didn’t know is how quickly and adeptly it could adapt to a counterinsurgency type of warfare. And it’s the best counterinsurgency force in the world. And we see that, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We see that in Afghanistan, when the…vis-à-vis the European allies in NATO. They just can’t conduct operations against the Taliban as we can, even though they really haven’t been in a war. They should be fresh and invigorated, and we should be demoralized and tired. And yet, just the opposite is true in Afghanistan.
HH: Victor Davis Hanson, always a pleasure. The website, www.victorhanson.com, he writes frequently at Nationalreview.com. I appreciate it, Victor, Happy Easter to you.
End of interview.