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Victor Davis Hanson on the politics of the surge compared to history.

Monday, August 13, 2007
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HH: Joined now by Victor Davis Hanson, military historian, classicist extraordinaire. You can read all of his work at www.victorhanson.com. Professor, welcome back, good to have you.

VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.

HH: Your column today for the Tribune Media Services sounds a note you’ve made on this program before that election results follow the victories. And you cite 1864. Do you see the surge generating political support now?

VDH: Yeah, I do, and you can see it in people who were either against the initial surge, or had doubts about the occupation, disinterested people, whether John Burns in the New York Times, or Robert Burns of AP, or Mike O’Hanlon, Ken Pollack, and you can also see it subtly in the Democratic opposition to the war. You don’t really hear this ongoing debate of who voted for Iraq, you don’t see Obama pressing Hillary to say you know what? You’ve got to apologize to the American people, or John Edwards making that demand. Instead, you see people like Obama demanding we invade Pakistan.

HH: Now you wrote in the column that wide disagreement over a military campaign in progress is not that unusual. Is it in fact, how often does that occur in the course of the battle itself?

VDH: Well, I think from our own, as contemporaries of Vietnam, we saw what happened in Tet, that right in the middle of the battle, Walter Cronkite came back and declared it lost, and then it became sort of a popular myth that it was lost, even though we know now in retrospect that it was won. And it happens a lot more than you would think. There were people right in the middle of the bombing campaign who said we’ve got to stop B-17’s, B-24’s in World War II, because they’re just being wiped out. And they were. But by the time they were making that diagnosis, everything had changed. They had started to use long range escort fighters that dropped tanks. They’d mastered different techniques. And then they started really wrecking the Third Reich. But it happens a lot in war.

HH: But does it happen so that the American media goes back and forth and see saws this way? Have we, in essence, seen all this before?

VDH: Yeah, I think so. I think that what we’re seeing, though, is not so much the American media going back and forth now. The American media now, because of people like the New York Times printing these stories, now they’re sort of coming on board and seeing you know what? We were never really against the surge. Let it work out. So we’ve got this very strange political calculus where the Democrats, like Harry Reid, are suddenly, or Dick Durbin or John Murtha, are very quiet now, because they’re talking to themselves, and we know all the quotes that they’ve said that they have a problem with the success of the surge, that they really don’t want to hammer David Petraeus when he comes in. So you’re going to see sort of a ying now where the Republicans are in ascendance. But the problem is going to be is, General Petraeus has got to translate this tactical success into long term strategic victory. And that has to be done sometime next spring, or you’ll see those 12 Republican Senators start to drift back with the Republicans when they say you know, how long is this surge going to go on. So I think right now that the momentum is in Petraeus’ court, and the Democrats who were sort of Pavlovian against it, look pretty bad. But the key thing will be next spring, rather than next September. A lot of people were writing this thing off and saying they were going to cut, pull the rug out from under Petraeus in September. That’s not going to happen.

HH: Now Victor Davis Hanson, a couple of weeks back, maybe three now, General Petraeus came on this program and immediately, some of the anti-war hysterics, Glen Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, began to slander the general as an apparatchik of the Bush administration. I didn’t think that was going to work, it’s been abandoned. Is there any dent been made in the Petraeus reputation? Or is it growing from where you sit?

VDH: I see it growing, because remember, there was some speculation before he was appointed that he was a Democrat. He has a PhD from an Ivy League university, Princeton, and he came in as part of the demands, at least from the popular press and the Democrats, they wanted Rumsfeld gone, they wanted Casey gone, they wanted Abizaid gone. They wanted a change in tactics, and believe it or not, they said we needed more troops. All of those demands were met, and then suddenly, we found out that the demands were not only increased, but Petraeus, if you go back and look at the Cobra II fiasco, or all these published indictments of the current policies in Iraq, Petraeus was always championed as a savior by liberal commentators, and he was a favorite of Democratic Congressmen and Senators. So it’s going to be very hard for them to turn on him, and then we know that he has a sterling character. So I think they’re going to have a problem doing that.

– – – –

HH: A number of comments to cover with you, Professor. I got a couple of e-mails about something Mike Gravel, Democratic candidate for president, somewhat of a nutter, said last week, or a couple of weeks back, that the Spartans trained their men to be homosexual so they would fight with each other. Rush was wondering aloud what you thought of that. What do you think about Mike Gravel’s statement?

VDH: I wrote something on the National Review Corner about that. It was kind of ridiculous. I think he’s confusing the 300 that held the pass at 480 BC with the so-called Theban sacred band of 300. Supposedly, 150 lovers, wealthy, aristocrats and thieves a century and a half later. But that was…1% of the Theban army may or may not have engaged in relations. But there’s no evidence that any Greek army ever trained people to be homosexuals. In fact, we have philosophers like Xenophon who were saying in a natural situation, where there’s men and younger men in a close environment, sort of like an American prison, or our own military. It’s not right for men to have physical relationships with other men. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but to the degree it did, it was more like the climate or culture of today’s modern prisons.

HH: Next I want to turn to the question of body counts. In a conversation with a bunch of talk radio hosts including me, a number of us raised with the President the issue of whether or not the number of terrorists killed in Iraq ought to be publicized. And I can’t quote his response on that, but I’m wondering what is your belief about the Pentagon policy of not revealing the number of dead and wounded among the enemy?

VDH: I think it’s a great mistake, and you and I both know why they don’t. It’s the reaction to Vietnam when we had the search and destroy missions, where success was predicated on body counts. But in every other war that we’ve fought, even when fronts changed hands and territory wasn’t the only litmus test for success, we have tried to give some estimations of the body counts. And we have this mystique about al Qaeda and Islamicists in general that there’s this endless supply of people who want to blow themselves up, or die before our army, and there’s not. There wasn’t in World War II with Japanese kamikazes. They had to be drugged or made to get drunk, or they were shanghaied out of university. Anybody who was an English major was put in a plane. There’s always a finite supply of that, and I’d like to see when they say that the incidents are going down, one of the reasons is that we don’t even talk about, it’s not just that Sunni sheiks have gone over to our side, but we’ve killed a lot of people, and people don’t want to die, most people don’t.

HH: What about the argument from some in the Pentagon that if a private finds out that we’re releasing these body counts, he’ll think the metric of a success are the number killed. And it is not necessarily that at all, if he starts killing civilians.

VDH: Yeah, well, I think that’s what good officers are for, and I think you and I, and most people have a lot of confidence in American officers in general, and specifically the caliber of officers that are in Iraq right now. I think everybody who’s for the war or against the war agrees on one thing. This is the finest American army that we’ve fielded in the history of this country.

HH: Now I want to talk about the political situation in Iraq. A lot of the left has taken, has changed arguments. Now that the surge is working, and violence is down, and the enemy are being killed at record numbers, they’ve turned their attention to Maliki’s political stalemate. Fair on their part? Or premature on their part?

VDH: Premature. We don’t really, we were hearing a lot of other stories coming out of Iraq that they really, even though they’ve been on vacation, they’re working behind the scenes. And I think what’s happening is there’s a lot more Arab Iraqi Shia than we think that are not necessarily allied with the radical Shia militias, and much less Iran. I think what’s happening is the position of Iran is getting more desperate, because for the first time in two or three years, the Sunni bloc on the Gulf is starting to turn on, they don’t really have any resonance in Europe anymore, their economy is being wrecked, Hezbollah, we’re starting to see, as we examine very carefully the post-facto information in Lebanon, Hezbollah really didn’t win that war. They won it maybe psychologically, but they took an enormous amount of physical damage that has to be supplied and fixed and rectified by Iran. So they’re not in good shape right now, and I think we overestimate just how powerful they are.

HH: Now I have talked with a number of people who have been there, both O’Hanlon and I’ve spoken with John Burns and some others, and they all really can’t get an answer to whether or not the benchmark conversation, and the timetable conversation are helping or hurting us in Iraq, because as John Burns points out, why are you in a hurry to bring the Sunni in, and get rid of the de-Baathification if in fact you’re going to be in a civil war with them in six months? What’s your assessment on the whole of the impact of the Congressional debates, and the demands for benchmarks and timetables?

VDH: I think General Petraeus has it just about right. He’s treading a very fine line. He’s quietly behind the scenes informing people that they don’t have a blank check of America’s continued financial and military support, and he’s using that as a prod to get these political reforms, especially the sharing of oil revenue, trying to get them to move. And yet publicly, he’s trying to reassure the public of Iraq that he’s not just going to leave them. So he’s trying to say you know what? I have a bunch of Democratic Senators and House members who are going to cut me off unless we can get some progress, and then publicly, he’s saying to the public, look, we’re here to protect you. And that’s about all he can do.

HH: A couple of last questions. Saudi Arabia wants a bunch of arms from us, Victor David Hanson. What do you think?

VDH: I write for National Review, and our magazine made an editorial supporting that, and I can see that if we don’t give it to them, the French will sell it to them, and we can balance Iran with them. But we’ve got to remember that gosh, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. Saudis supply the majority now of suicide bombers inside Iraq. The Saudi government is spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars to open up madrassas and mosques. And I think that we really have to send them a message. They’ve tried to undermine us in Iraq. I’m just not one of these people who believe in the real politic of the path that propped up the House of Saud was in the long term interest of the United States.

HH: Last question, General Odierno, as well as a number of Americans, are criticizing our talks with Iran because…well, he didn’t criticize the talks with Iran, he’s criticizing Iran, because they’ve been sending in these projectiles which have killed a lot of Americans. Ought we to be talking to Iran right now, Victor Davis Hanson?

VDH: Yeah, I think that’s way, way overdue. We really need to start doing some things beyond talking, and if that is going into Iranian airspace, or buzzing Iranians, or even starting to forget where the border is and taking out some of these training camps, we need to do that and send a message, because they’re a paper tiger. They really are.

HH: Victor Hanson, always a pleasure. www.victorhanson.com.

End of interview.

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