Victor Davis Hanson on the state of the Iraq war after the vote in the House yesterday.
HH: Joined now by eminent military historian and classicist, Victor Davis Hanson. Professor, always a pleasure. Thanks for being back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.
HH: Well, a few hours ago, the United States House of Representatives voted 246-182 in favor of defeat. That’s how I interpret it, and it includes 17 Republicans, white flag Republicans, as we’re calling them. What’s your reaction to this vote, Victor Davis Hanson?
VDH: Well, I think it’s sort of a holding pattern that they see that polls support opposition to the war, and yet they’re not sure how the surge is going to work, so they feel that they can finesse this for the spring and summer, and if it gets worse, the news comes back from Iraq worse, then they’ll press on and cut off funds. If it gets better, then they’ll say that they were the catalyst that shook things up, and Petraeus and Bush made the necessary adjustments. But it doesn’t…it’s rhetoric. It doesn’t require any principled position.
HH: How many of these 17 Republicans do you expect are acting out of a principled understanding that they think the war won’t be benefited by an increase of troops in Baghdad, and how many of the 17 do you think are running for the tall grass of political cover?
VDH: I guess I’d answer that by saying that if the surge works, all 17 of them would say that they’re still on board. So I think they just don’t…they think that they go back home, and their constituents are troubled by the news accounts, and so they think I can’t continue to support this, and I can’t cut off the troops’ funding, so I’ll just do what the Democrats are doing, and just put my finger in the air and wait and see what happen. That’s what they’re trying to do.
HH: Now Professor, have you been watching what has been called the debate on C-SPAN at all?
VDH: You know, I’ve been traveling today, but I have ducked in and out, and I think it was this kind of bizarre five minutes each House member was given.
VDH: And I don’t think anybody other than a local audience would see that, and it was…this whole thing is so strange, because why would you confirm General Petraeus by unanimous margin in the Senate, and why would you voice support in the House, and then the Congress would get going to try to deny him the spiritual and moral support that you’d think he’s the right guy to do it? It doesn’t make any sense.
HH: Well, part of it may be, and I’ll test this thesis on you, that they are so not connected to the new media environment, that they believe they can campaign on these votes without being effectively contradicted, either in primary or general elections in two years, that there was a time when you could do that sort of thing, Professor. It was too expensive and too difficult to explain that. I think these 17 Republicans are permanently branded as white flag Republicans. I don’t think they’ll ever get away from that, and so I think they’re campaigning in a different century than the one we’re living in.
VDH: Well, you make a good point that for Republicans to vote for this, it’s much different than Democrats, because even with the President’s polls at 37-38%, 65% of Republicans still support him. And so the Republicans are making the argument to themselves in political terms, there’s enough moderate in my district to outweigh my consideration of eroding the base, and it’s a political decision. But they’re in a strange situation, because what if Sadr stays in Iran for a while, and what if all of a sudden the Iraqis start to join us, and what if things get stable. Then what do they do? Do they say well, it’s going well, but…or I want to keep on this Democratic bandwagon and in the fall, cut off funds? So you know, it’s history…American history is replete with examples of people who want to judge the battlefield before the battle’s over with.
HH: That’s what I was going to come to in the next segment, but let’s get there in a hurry. What precedents are there for this?
VDH: Well, I mean, we all go back to the summer of 1864 after the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, and remember Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and all of the triumphalism of 1863 was gone. And there were thousands of Americans that got killed in what they called optional campaigns, and Grant just didn’t seem to be able to crack Lee in Northern Virginia. And people were saying that the Copperhead movement was the answer, return to a status quo ante, maybe let…the Confederates could have slavery, Horace Greeley suggesting that Lincoln should not seek the nomination, not just would not win the election. And then suddenly, Sherman decided to do something quite different. He cut his supply lines and forgot about Nathan Bedford Forrest, and went and took Atlanta on September 2nd, and suddenly, the papers were full of ‘Biggest Southern City is in Union Hands – John Bell Hood Flees,’ and you couldn’t find a Northerner who was a Copperhead. And if you saw a headline like that, ‘Sadr Flees, Baghdad Quiet, Iraqis Joining the Security Forces,’ then I…I mean, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, I think it could, and I think I’m hoping that it will, but if that happens, these people will share the same fate as the Copperhead movement, or the people in the 1930’s that said you can’t beat Hitler, he’s unstoppable, you’ve got to make a deal with him. And suddenly, people don’t listen to Stanley Baldwin, or they don’t listen to the name of Chamberlain when there were votes.
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HH: Professor, the country seems pretty deeply divided between those who believe not only in victory, but that there’s no other choice but to try and get that, and those who just want to quit, and hope, I guess, that nothing’s going to happen. Yesterday, I spent an entire hour talking with retired Lt. General William Odom, and the transcript’s up at Hughhewitt.com, for the benefit of the audience who wants to read it. And he’s one of these just leave, and you know, it’ll sort itself out…and he denies the relevance of the number of people or the chaos that would follow, because he doesn’t believe it will change one way or the other, and he denies the relevance of Iranian theology, and Ahmadinejad’s millennialism, he denies the relevance of everything. How do you argue against that?
VDH: Well, he’s making a classical argument of reductionism, where it is…there’s a simple truth that everything sorts itself out, sort of, I mean, life goes on unless the planet blows up, and as long as you’re not near it. And people make this argument about Vietnam, and say well, Vietnam’s got opium in its economy today, it’s not friendly with China, and that’s all true, as long as you think away the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet interference in Central America, the Iranian hostage taking, the Cambodian holocaust, the million and a half people who were boat people or executed, and the 30 years of oppression that people had to live under that Vietnam. And so yeah, he’s right in the sense that maybe in 20 years, there’ll be something called Iraq, and there’ll be something called the United States, and there’ll be something called Iran, but for all the damage that’s going to take place, he doesn’t seem to think it’s serious if it’s not Earth-ending for us. It doesn’t mean that the United States is going to collapse as a civilization, it means that it might weaken us to such a degree that that could happen in the future. But this idea that life goes on, so what’s the problem, is something that we in Washington or New York can say, but if you’re one of the million or so Iraqis actively involved in trying to build a constitutional government, or you’re in the U.S. Army, or you’re in a base near the Iranian border, then yeah, I think there’s going to be some really big repercussions, and we’re going to fell them, but it’s going to take a while to fathom what we’re experiencing.
HH: General Odom also made the argument, Professor Hanson, that we could not stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that we ought not to try, and that in fact even if we tried, we could do little more than delay it. Have you ever, in your studies of military history, seen a superpower accept that sort of a dimension-shifting event in the arsenal of an opponent with whom it is engaged at least in a non-declared war?
VDH: Well, there were people who said…remember, France said that it could not enforce any of the Versailles Treaty about the demilitarization of Germany. It could, but it just accepted that it chose not to, and then said it couldn’t. The Romans said they couldn’t deal with the Parthians, and then they just accepted the Parthians. We can stop that if we want. I mean, we don’t know how far they’re along, but I mean, my gosh, Austria is selling sniper rifles to Iran. That shows you the liquidity of the European embargo. You, tomorrow, shut off all European trade, which is the largest trade partner with Iran, and then if they can’t trade with the United States, and they can’t trade with Europe, they can get something from China and Russia, but it’s really going to hurt them. And you keep working on that embargo, you keep working the U.N., you keep giving money to dissidents, you try to stabilize Iraq, you let them know that Israel could do anything at any minute, and you can really weaken this government. But so far, we haven’t done very much of any of this, so it’s almost like saying let’s not run the…we’ve lost the race before you even start it.
HH: Now we know that the Democrats say that, and people like General Odom say that, and we know that the President counters it with some sort of argument. What do you think the American people think about what’s going on in the country? It’s very hard, an people throw up polls, but polls don’t ask the right questions in sequences sufficiently long or detailed to let us know. We have to intuit, we have to study a lot of data to get there. What do you think is going on in the country?
VDH: I think there’s a third of the country that was always sort of pacifist, and wanted to be left alone, isolationist, pacifist, left-wing, libertarian…whatever term we use for them, and they’re always there. But I think the…and then there’s a third that want to continue and win the war over there rather than here. But then there’s another third that expressed doubt, they go back and forth, but their basic premise is well, you haven’t thought this out, but we just want to win. And we’re for this if we’ll win, and we’re not if we’re not going to win. And it’s that fight over that third that’s very important. Now the left third believes that these people are kindred ideological soul mates, and object to the hopelessness, and the conservatives, I think rightly think, well this third can jump back on board and give us a 60 something plurality if we start winning and we get some good news and we change the rules of engagement and we get serious. And I think that’s the kind of political landscape as we look at it today.
HH: And do you agree with that analysis, that that one third is up for grabs?
VDH: I do. I do. I think that their dissatisfaction of the war, I hear it all the time when I speak, when I turn on my computer and get e-mails, it’s well, I was for this war, but since you don’t want to win, or we’re arrest and release, or…they’re angry about the apparent, or perceived lack of progress.
HH: You know, I had Douglas Feith on the program on Tuesday or Wednesday, former undersecretary of defense, and I him bluntly how come the Bush administration had been so awful in the media war, in the information war, not just in combating our enemies, but in communicating with our own people about the stakes and the dangers, and he said they would sit around for hours, and not come up with the answer. I think it’s because they’re not available, Victor Hanson. I don’t think they spend enough time talking about this…
VDH: Oh, I agree. I agree, and I think they also came in thinking the Clintons were a disaster, and now we’ve got Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush and Rice and Powell, and got the old hands, we’re going to do it our way, and we don’t have to explain, because these people are discredited. And who’s going to listen to Maureen Dowd, who’s going to listen to NPR? And then Afghanistan went so well, seven weeks, victory, a year, a constitutional government. And they thought well, three weeks, a victory in Iraq, then six months, by that formula, it’ll work in Iraq as well after the three week…and they were just complacent. And then they sort of had an attitude. They said oh, pull back from Fallujah? Well, we still have 65% of the American people. Oh, not kill Sadr? Well, we still have 60%. Oh, you know, don’t go after and disarm the militias? Oh, we still have 55%. Oh, rules of engagement, arrest and release? We’ve still got 50%. And then they kept rationalizing that they didn’t want the big blow-up – CNN, Reuters, BBC, saying the war hadn’t gone back into an active phase again. So they tried to finesse it, and what they didn’t realize was an outsider was looking at this and saying you’re just losing all of your capital because you’re not being forceful enough.
HH: Wow. I think that’s exactly, exactly what has happened.
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HH: Professor Hanson, you don’t sound as glum as a lot of people, including me, today. You sound like it’s still very much in your mind up in doubt what’s going to happen here, and that mostly, it depends upon what happens in Iraq.
VDH: I do. And I don’t want to sound cynical, but I understand there’s a third that are gone for good, that even though Kerry and Senator Clinton and all of these people said we need more troops, we’ve got to listen to some guy like Petraeus, he’s the person, let’s not listen to the Tommy Franks, Casey, Abizaid people. We need our guy, Petraeus, we need to have more troops. And then when they get that, we don’t want Rumsfeld anymore. So you get rid of Rumsfeld, you get Petraeus in there, you get more troops, and they’re still against it. Well, they’re never going to come back, because they’re too invested in the opposition. But the other third, you start winning, and you get news that the insurgents are losing, and that they’re dying and they’re fleeing, and the Iraqis are getting confidence, and then slowly, slowly, slowly, this capital that was squandered can be reclaimed in the next year. But it has to be done within a year, because President Bush has got to get up to over 50% approval in the war, or these Democrats by November will start to cut off funds.
HH: They do have to manage the expectations, though, I think, that it will take a year to get back Baghdad in stability.
VDH: They have to say it’s a year, and I think they’ve been very good, finally, and notice the President’s been out much more than he has in the past, and they’ve had people…and the Secretary of Defense has been out more. So I think they are starting to understand that this ‘trust me,’ and, ‘why address the lunatic left,’ doesn’t work anymore. When you’re listening to speeches everyday by Obama and Hillary and Nancy Pelosi about how this is stupid, nefarious, can’t work, it’s going to be cumulative to the American people, especially when it’s interspliced with an I.E.D. and a suicide bomber report on CBS News every night.
HH: And do you like what you’re hearing from the Republican big three, Giuliani, Romney and McCain? Are they making the argument you want them to make?
VDH: I am. I’m very surprised that they show a lot of character, the three front runners, and that they haven’t bailed on the war, and they’ve taken the position sort of like yours or mine, that mistakes happen in war, and you wished we could have done better, but that we say that without the responsibility of making these bad and worse decisions, and that there’s always mistakes in every war, and none of them yet have been fatal to our cause, nor are they of a magnitude that’s unprecedented in history, and we can learn from them, and we will, and the U.S. military can’t be counted out, and the war won’t be lost on the battlefield. That’s pretty much as I see it, what the three candidates are saying.
HH: That’s what they are saying, and that is perhaps the best news to focus on as we remember this very low day in the House. Victor Davis Hanson, always a pleasure, Professor. www.victorhanson.com.
End of interview.