The old calculus was first the proverbial horse of defeating and vanquishing utterly the enemy; then the cart of showing magnanimity in rebuilding the country of a contrite loser. Only in that order would the Americans be willing to give millions to the former supporters of once murderous Nazis, Italian fascists, or imperial Japanese who had killed and maimed their sons.
In the Middle East, we reversed the sequence, on the idealistic — and I think correct — premise that the Afghan and Iraqi people were captive to their dictators, and that we wished to avoid an all-encompassing conflict along the lines of World War II. In other words, we trusted that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein explained the recent savagery of the Afghans and Iraqis, rather than the innate savagery of the Afghans and Iraqis themselves explaining the creation of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The result of this confidence, despite the carnage of war, was that democracy was ushered in, the rogues were to be kept out, and peace was supposed to follow from a grateful, liberated people.
But why should it, when the hard hand of American war was not first completely felt — nor the jihadists utterly vanquished and discredited and any who supported them? Unless there is some element of fear, or at least the suggestion of consequences to come for recalcitrance, why should an Iraqi cease his easy support of Hezbollah, his anti-Semitism, or his cheap support for Islamist terrorists around the block? It would be as if we expected to end slavery outright in the Confederacy around 1862, or rid Germany of Nazis around 1943, or persuade the Japanese fascists to vote in 1944 — before such ideologies have been utterly defeated and the steep price for those who tolerated them paid in full.
I still think we were right to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq, and I continue to support our missions there. My objections, such as they are, concern our failure to hammer the enemy into abject defeat and shame. I believe that the ordinary Iraqi or Afghan is fully capable of living in a democratic system, but I’m also a realist when it comes to human nature. In the Islamic culture of shame and honor we Westerners haven’t yet earned enough honor to command their respect, nor have we shamed the Islamists enough to discredit them in the eyes of their coreligionists. That has to change. Soon.
So what Mr. Bush is faced with is this nearly impossible paradox of half war/half peace: at a time when most are getting fed up with abhorrent Middle Eastern jihadists who blow up, hijack, and behead in the name of their religion, he is attempting to convince the same American public and the Western world at large to spend their blood and treasure to help Muslim Afghans, Iraqis, and now Lebanese, who heretofore — whether out of shared anti-Americanism or psychological satisfaction in seeing the overdog take a hit — have not been much eager to separate themselves from the rhetoric of radical Islam.
In any case, the administration’s problem is not really its (sound) strategy, nor its increasingly improved implementation that we see in Baghdad, but simply an American public that so far understandably cannot easily differentiate millions of brave Iraqis and Afghans, who risk their lives daily to hunt terrorists and ensure reform, from the Islamists of the Muslim Street who broadcast their primordial hatred for Israel and the United States incessantly.
President Bush’s task is more difficult than untangling the barbed wire in the photo above. To date he has refused the most direct approach: cutting through the tangles and utterly destroying the whole mess. I suspect that he continues to have faith in Islamic culture’s ability to change for the better without being completely humiliated first. Being an astute politician, he also probably realizes that most Americans are still unwilling to throw restraint to the winds and unleash total war … so far.
I suspect that one more major Islamist attack will abruptly end America’s patience, and our historical willingness to inflict breathtaking destruction will reassert itself. I’m nearly at that point already.
On the Right the politicking works out with cynicism and disgust: “These ungrateful and hateful people aren’t worth the life of another American soldier or American dollar.”
Yet the Bush idealism wins no points from the Left either. Both for partisan purposes, and due to the wages of multiculturalism that oppose any Western effort to bring to the other the good life that they themselves so eagerly embrace, Leftists still harp about no blood for oil and assorted conspiracies in lieu of legitimate analysis and criticism.
Only the far right thinks the effort’s misspent. The center right still thinks it’s worth it. The left is just plain delusional and operates in its own alternate reality without regard to facts.
What, then, is needed — aside from crushing the jihadists and securing Afghanistan and Iraq — is more articulation and explanation. The word “liberal” — as in promoting liberal values abroad, and reminding the world of the traditions of liberal tolerance — needs to be employed more often.
Some tough language is also helpful on occasion: any time the free democracies of Iraq or Afghanistan wish to vote to send American troops home, of course we will comply. Likewise, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon are under no compulsion to accept hated American aid or military help. And just as the American public needs reminding that millions of Middle Easterners are currently fighting jihadist terror in Afghanistan and Iraq — we wish we could say the same about our “allies” in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — so too the Iraqi and Afghan governments should convey to the American people that their support is appreciated, and its continuance deemed vital.
Good luck with all that. Until these cultures see us as the strong horse, we’re fighting a needlessly long battle.
How odd that the president must explain the pathologies of the Middle East to such a degree as to warn Americans of our mortal danger, but not to the point of excess so that we feel that there is no hope for such people. He must somehow suggest that jihadism could not imperil us were it not for the “moderates” who tolerate and appease it — while this is the very same group that we feel duty-bound to offer an alternative other than theocracy or dictatorship. And he must offer a postwar plan of reconstruction to the citizens of the Middle East at a time when many of them do not feel that their romantic jihadists have ever really been defeated at all.
Even the eloquence of a Lincoln or Churchill would find all that difficult.