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Victor Davis Hanson’s state of the union.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

HH: Joined now by American classicist, military historian, Victor Davis Hanson. You can read all of Professor Hanson’s work at Professor, always a pleasure, good to talk to you.

VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.

HH: A couple of things. First, I was struck by the attempt by Democrats and some Republicans to undercut the President’s state of the union speech and his plan to deploy additional troops to Baghdad even before it had happened. Are there any parallels, Victor Davis Hanson, in a war with which you are familiar, which means most wars, where domestic political opposition attempted to defeat a plan before it began?

VDH: Yeah, I think there is. What leaps to mind is, of course, the efforts to cut off the funding for bombing, the so-called Christmas bombing that Nixon did, and then the successful efforts in ’74, I think there was 21 Senate resolutions over ’74 and ’75 to cut off various attempts by the Nixon administration to save Vietnam. And that’s what looms the largest. But in our history, we’ve had…remember, Eisenhower really criticized Truman, and said you know, it’s not working, Stevenson’s going to be a disaster worse than you, but he didn’t do anything. The Republican Senate didn’t do anything. And even in 1943, there were Republicans who were very upset about the course of some of the things that Roosevelt was doing, but we really haven’t had that cut off, other than Vietnam.

HH: And countries other than the United States, are there famous examples of political opposition obliging a forward policy to be withdrawn?

VDH: Well, you know, it comes up all the time, absolutely. I mean, when the Athenians went to Sicily, there was a big debate whether they should put more troops to reinforce their first unsuccessful wave, and they did. The Athenians did. There was a debate to stop the so-called funding, if you want to use that term. It was defeated. And anytime you have a democratic consensual society, and you have a war that is not perceived to be going great, then you’re going to have people stand up. Churchill had a resolution of censure, because remember, we had the fall of Singapore, where 80,000 plus British troops surrendered. We had Tuebrook that was captured, we had…that all came after the fall of France, and the submarine war that was going bad against German submarines. And they really wanted to censure Churchill. It failed, but it’s not uncommon. But the idea that an opposition in the middle of a war will actually take the next step and cut off funds, that’s pretty rare.

HH: Now you’ve mentioned three examples, Nixon, Churchill and Alcibiades. In each of those instances, or at least in the first two, Nixon and Churchill dismissed their critics and went forward with the war to at least a temporarily successful situation. Nixon…

VDH: Absolutely. And remember, Lincoln in 1864, people like Horace Greeley were not saying that he wouldn’t win the election, they were telling him not to ask for the nomination, because they didn’t think…they thought he had been a disaster for the Republican Party, and it was only when Sherman took Atlanta on September 2nd, that all of a sudden people said you know what? Let’s nominate Lincoln, he’s going to be okay.

HH: So what is your advice to President Bush, vis-a-vis his policy, and the speech we’re going to hear tomorrow night?

VDH: Well, I think, as I said before, I always thought that the most important aspect of this so-called surge was not necessarily the number of troops, but a widening of the parameters of operations. And now you have David Petraeus there, who not only believes you’ve got to do a little bit more proactive…military activity, but it’s got to be hearts and minds, and economic activity, and all that stuff. But unless you stop the arrest and detain…arrest and release, excuse me, and unless you pressure the Mahdi army, Sadr, the Shia militias, some of these association of Muslim scholar characters, unless you really go after them, it’s not going to work, and I think that we’re starting to see just a little…even though there’s been a bad week as far as American fatalities, we are seeing a little bit of the Shia militias are now thinking you know what? Maybe we better lie low for a while.

HH: I want to talk about how our enemies absorb the media messages coming out of the United States Senate in particular, as well, Victor Davis Hanson. One, I assume they monitor everything that goes on in American politics. Do you agree with that?

VDH: I absolutely do. When you see Dr. Zawahiri talk about the evil great Satan, the United States, and if you read some of his communiqués that A) didn’t sign the Kyoto Accord, and B) doesn’t have campaign finance reform, you can see that they’re very knowledgeable of what we do.

HH: And then the second audience is, of course, in Tehran. And when Harry Reid announces that the President lacks Constitutional authority to pursue Iranian intermeddling and killing of Americans, does that, do you think, register among the mullahs and Ahmadinejad?

VDH: Absolutely. When the President’s got this pretty good policy that’s finessed, that we’re not going to talk to this man, we’re not going to bomb him yet, and yet, we’re going to have allies, the U.N., everybody pressure him, and we’re going to have a couple of carriers off his coast, and then you have this guy come out from the Senate saying it doesn’t matter about all that, that’s just show, because Bush has to come to me. And you want to know where was Harry Reid when Bill Clinton wanted the flexibility to bomb Belgrade, and didn’t even go to the U.N., much less go to the House or Senate. I didn’t see anybody…I remember there was a couple of Republican Congressman, I think Tom Campbell from California, said you can’t do this. And then finally, the Democrats panicked, and they had that resolution, do you support Clinton, and it didn’t even pass. It tied. So there, you had not only…not only didn’t get sanctions, it sort of failed, and Clinton just said you know what? This is genocide, we’ve got to stop this, and went ahead and did what he had to do.

HH: Now the last question is the sort that goes to the policy itself. We had a horrific weekend, with 25 Americans killed, and a number of other Iraqi allies killed over the course of bombings, and in a helicopter crash, et cetera. And so the question remains, how much longer will Americans put up with this? You are an expert in decisive battle. In fact, I was listening to John Keegan talk about your study of how the Greeks waged war, and I began to wonder whether or not we simply are not capable of waging this kind of a war. Has that occurred to you?

VDH: It has, and I’ve had very mixed emotions. The Americans are a restless people, Westerners in general, but especially Americans. They like to see decisive, quick, rapid war, like the three week war that took out Saddam. Everybody who says we didn’t have enough troops, nobody said that after that three week war was over. They thought wow, this was great, didn’t have all that many troops, and we won that quickly. It’s only when we get into these static wars of attrition that the patience of American people starts to wane. But remember, we were in Vietnam for ten years, Korea three. It can be sustained if you have military commanders who are experts in counterinsurgency, and you have an administration that’s able to articulate the long term goals in a way that resonates with the American people, and you have an opposition, as we did in various wars, the Republican opposition did not stop Lyndon Johnson and JFK in Vietnam.

– – – – –

HH: Professor, if…everybody’s a producer. We say that in radio and television, but also, most people are speech writers in their heart. If you could give the President some pointers on what you want him to say tomorrow night, what would they be?

VDH: I would tell him to remind the American people that we have had much darker hours in our history. Antietam was no picnic, and the choice and retreat in Korea was bad. And after 9/11, there were people who said that this was going to be repeated in a serial fashion. But each time, the American people rose to the occasion. And yes, a brilliant, three week tactical victory over Saddam, everybody supported it. And now, the much more difficult task of fostering a democracy where it never had existed is losing public support. But the stakes are simply, are we going to allow jihadism to foster the Middle East? And with the nexus of petroleum money coming in, $500 billion dollars a year, and the propensity to buy these weapons, it’s going to be a bleak future. Or are we going to spend blood, treasure and go through this ordeal, see it through, get a consensual government in Afghanistan and Iraq, have American military presence to contain Iran, and then we’re going to start to see the Middle East join the rest of the world, and we can solve a number of problems that threaten our grandchildren, from nuclear proliferation in Iran, to jihadism coming out of petrol-fed dollars. And everything’s up for grabs right now, and it’s depending on…to quote Wellington, who pounds the longest.

HH: Let me ask you then, in terms of assessing the peril in which the country finds itself, and perhaps it’s not obvious, is it similar to the peril that the late Roman Republic found itself in when Caesar crosses Rubicon, and everything starts to descend? Or is it more like a simple period of political instability such as mark the 30’s and the depressions before that?

VDH: You know, that’s a great question, because I’m very worried, because in some sense, the jihadists are just a rag tag bunch of failed extremists. They don’t compare with the Wehrmacht, or they don’t compare with 7,000 nuclear weapons, but then you stop and say well, wait a minute. They did what none of those people did. They took out 3,000 Americans at the heart of American military and economic power in Washington and New York, and then you realize as you start thinking about it, this is a worldwide ideology that transcends countries, Indonesia, Philippines, Iran, all these places. And then more importantly, in the age of globalization, miniaturization, and nuclear proliferation, you really don’t need those assets that threatened the United States before. And then you add one other wrinkle to it. Never in the history of the United States, as I see it, have we had an elite who are more diffident and conflicted about is the United States different? Is it exceptional? Is it better than the alternative? Is it worth defending? And at this sort of perfect storm, bin Laden and these people have come along and said you know what? We can wage a psychological terrorist war against the people who don’t think that they really deserve to continue as a people in the way they had before.

HH: Then I take that to mean that the threat is indeed much higher than most people think. Victor Davis Hanson, a pleasure as always.

End of interview.

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