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Friday, October 03, 2003

A struggle of wills, not of power

My liberal arts college education at Sodom-on-the-Colorado (UT-Austin) in the late 1970s made me a skeptic.  It almost went further:   I barely resisted becoming an absolute relativist, the sort of person who could argue, "Well, ya know, Sadaam had a point about ...."  If I'd given in to that, I'd be a much more dangerous person now, because the education I then received at law school turned me into a much better advocate for any given position.

Skepticism makes me ask myself, however, whether I'm missing something important when I read an op-ed that just seems to me to nail some issue or another.  When I find myself saying "Exactly!" two or three times per paragraph, afterwards I think, "Was this guy really that right?  Could anybody be?  Can this be that simple? What am I missing here?"

That's how I felt, for instance, after reading Victor Davis Hanson's new article in the National Review Online immodestly entitled "What's it All About?  Playing High-Stakes Poker Like Never Before."  Hanson's elegant and clear writing just electrifies me, and I think to myself, "How can anyone read this and not instantly recognize its truth?"  Commenting on the ongoing skirmishing in Iraq and its significance in the larger War on Terror, Hanson writes:

Our enemies fathom fully — if American pundits and professors cannot — the Western way of war, the lethality of which makes conventional opposition to an American military force on the field of battle tantamount to suicide. Thus the terrorists grant the success of U.S. efforts in a Panama, Serbia, Kuwait, and Iraq, but prefer to look instead to the messes of the last twenty years in Iran, Beirut, Mogadishu, and Haiti, concluding that there are still other ways to stifle the Americans. In other words, they see the war not in terms of power — ours is far greater — but of will, as a struggle in which we, for a variety of reasons, will not bring to bear all the resources that we can.

(Emphasis by Beldar.)  I genuinely fail to understand how anyone can fail to understand this.  And if you understand it, how can you fail to take the next very small step — understanding what it means about what we must do in the future?

So here we have the stakes in this last, big hand of Middle East poker. Our enemies are betting that our very freedom, affluence, raucous democratic politics, and shoot-from-the hip media will still prove true to form and thus, sooner or later, we will quit — especially as an election nears and the memory of 3,000 incinerated Americans fades.

In contrast, Mr. Bush's hunch is that the tragedy of September changed us all, and his own resoluteness will prove the better hand. In other words, as polls drop and sunshine supporters fold, he senses that America — and with it civilization — will still win, and in a very big way, thus ending for good this awful contest of the last quarter-century.

Again, this seems to me so obvious, so doubtlessly true, that I can't for the life of me work up a healthy case of skepticism. 

During the active-combat fighting in Iraq this spring, as I was driving my two youngest kids to school one morning, we were talking about the news, and my son Adam (age 10) asked me, "Dad, how do you know that Sadaam is bad?" 

And I said, "Well, Adam, for one thing, there's the way he treats people who disagree with him.  Sometimes he will take the whole family of a man who opposes him, and fly them up high in a helicopter, and then dangle the children by their feet out of the doorway, one at a time, and then drop them so that they fall." 

I stopped, because I could see that Adam had gone pale.  He was obviously contemplating what it would be like to be in that helicopter.  He could suddenly imagine his little sister, who he fusses and fights with constantly, being dangled, and then dropped.  "Daddy," he said softly, "that is very mean.  I understand now why we're fighting him."

It's that simple.  Any ten-year-old can understand it.  So why can't a college professor?  Why can't a senator?

When someone says to me, "We should pull out of Iraq and turn it over to the UN," for a moment I stand there gape-mouthed, my head tilted to one side, and my eyes unblinking.  I have to resist the urge to grab this person by the shoulders and shake him vigorously, shouting "Wake up!  Wake up, you fool!"  I have to repress fantasies of putting this person into the reclining chair from A Clockwork Orange, complete with eyelid-restraints, and playing for him over and over the movies of the jets crashing into the World Trade Center, the innocent civilians jumping, the buildings falling from the sky, the new widows standing on street-corners with photocopied "Have you seen my husband?" leaflets, the paramedics standing around with nothing to do because there were so few merely hurt and wounded.  I'd intercut those with scenes of mass graves in Iraq.  "Do you get it yet?  Huh?  Do you get it?" I'd scream at my interrogator.  "They want to kill you.  You can't talk them out of it.  They will laugh at your foolishness while they torture your children, while they feed them feet-first into the limb-chopping machine.  Do you get it yet?  Wake up!"

The way we would lose the struggle of wills would be by allowing ourselves to sink back into the false innocence and complacency that predated 9/11.  This central truth seems to me so blindingly obvious, so shatteringly simple, that I have trouble concealing my disgust with anyone who manages to delude himself into forgetting it. 

I simply have no more skepticism on this point; I cannot see it in shades of gray.

Posted by Beldar at 10:57 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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(1) Mike Thomas made the following comment | Oct 5, 2003 12:53:23 AM | Permalink

I know what you mean about reading a really good essay or editorial - I often feel that way about the columns by Michael Kinsley. But while Mr. Hanson makes several good points in his NRO piece, I think he tends to oversimplfy things. I get the impression that when he talks about terrorism its as if he thinks it is being directed by some collective hive-mind -

"Thus the terrorists grant the success of U.S. efforts in a Panama, Serbia, Kuwait, and Iraq, but prefer to look instead to the messes of the last twenty years in Iran, Beirut, Mogadishu, and Haiti, concluding that there are still other ways to stifle the Americans."

Who does he think we are up against? The Borg? Terrorism is a broad term that can be applied to many diverse and unrelated activities. There is no master villian or queen bee out there who we can crush and thus win the misnamed War on Terror.
I still do not understand how anyone can rationalize invading Iraq as a response to the 9-11 attacks. Granted that Hussein is a bad man, but he had nothing to do with the attack on our country two years ago. And yet, here we are bogged down in the middle of this mess with no end in sight and I'm supposed to believe that this has somehow made us safer? It doesn't compute. And no, shaking me and telling me to "Wake Up!" will not make it any more logical.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Oct 5, 2003 2:01:51 AM | Permalink

Thanks for posting, Mike! Yours is a well-constructed and reasoned argument, and I'll do my best to avoid the urge to grab and shake you in response. In thinking back over my own post — trying to look at it with skepticism and intellectual rigor, rather than emotion — I lingered longest over the very connection that you challenge.

I agree with you that there's no direct causal link between Sadaam and 9/11. Period, paragraph.

The events of 9/11, however, marked America's declaration of the War on Terror — a war on terrorists and those who harbor and support them. The response is broader than was the provocation, and very deliberately so. In the first place, there is no way you can say, "We're at war only with al-Qaeda, we're going to kill or capture every member of that organization, and then stop because we've won and we're done." Any line you try to draw there is arbitrary. On the outside of the "al-Qaeda" circle there still would be people who are still just as hostile to American and western civilization, who are just as eager to use the same tools of terrorism, and who want to see precisely the same end results.

There were ample points of contact between bin Ladin and the al-Qaeda organization on the one hand, and Sadaam Husein's regime on the other. And there were other well-documented links between Sadaam's regime and other terrorist organizations, including militant Palestinians. Sadaam supported several varieties of terrorists financially; he gave them shelter; he facilitated their training. And of every formal government in the world, his was the most terroristic itself — as evidenced, for instance, by the foiled plot to assassinate GHW Bush. More than Libya, Syria, Iran, or North Korea.

After the destruction of the Taliban, if the question asked was only — "Who's next on the payback list for 9/11?" — then I agree with you, the answer to that wasn't "Iraq." But if the question instead was — "Given our new, more clear-eyed appreciation for our vulnerability to terrorism after 9/11, what terrorist organization or country sponsoring them is the next greatest danger to the United States and to western civilization?" — then the answer most assuredly was Iraq.

You say you don't feel safer. Have you read the Kay report summary released this week? There's no reasonable doubt that the instant pressure let up, Sadaam's biological and chemical weapons programs would have sprung back into action. Maybe the Brucella and Congo Crimean Hemorrhagic Fever and ricin and aflatoxin were just intended for Iraqi Kurds; or maybe they were just intended for Tehran or Kuwait City; or maybe they were just intended for Tel Aviv. But even if those were the only intended targets, Sadaam's weapons — and demonstrated eagerness to use them! — could have triggered destabilization that inevitably involved US forces. And friend Mike, if you think the chance of those weapons being used in New York or San Francisco was zero, then you do need some shoulder-grabbing and shaking. At least the way I read our national mood, and certainly the mood of our President, even a twenty percent chance of that — or a ten or a two percent chance of that — is simply unacceptable. We'll do whatever is necessary to bring that number back down to zero or as close thereto as is humanly possible to make it; we will refuse to be a self-bound paralyzed superpower watching helplessly as the risks gather and grow.

And completely apart from its status as an enemy of the US and the west in the War on Terror — leaving aside any issues of terrorism, WMDs, al-Qaeda, Palestinians, yellowcake uranium, etc. — Sadaam's regime had to be dealt with in order to preserve any shred of long-term credibility for the US as a power perceived to be willing and able to enforce the terms of peace it imposes after a military victory. Do you know how many tens of thousands of anti-aircraft rounds were fired at American and British aircraft patroling the "no-fly" zones since the first Gulf War? Every one of those shots was a flagrant violation of the cease-fire; any one of those shots, as a matter of international law, fully justified the Third Infantry Division and the First Marine Division driving up to Baghdad. The reality is that the first Gulf War never ended; virtually every promise Sadaam made as part of the ceasefire arrangements, including but by no means limited to those having to do with WMDs, he broke.

And finally there is the genocide Sadaam carried out among his own people. Again, ignoring the WMD aspects of that, Sadaam was in a long-term campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in which our moral obligation to intervene was far stronger than in, say, Kosovo. If you want a good reason to be critical of America and its foreign policy, you'll find no better one than the encouragement we gave to Shi'ite and Kurdish populations after the first Gulf War that led directly to huge massacres and dislocations. We owed these people their liberation.

The significance of 9/11 to all of this is simply that it made the scales of self-delusion drop from our eyes. The struggle we're in now is inevitable; you can only deny that if you go back to the willful self-delusion we engaged in when we thought that lobbing a few cruise missiles at an aspirin factory was "showing the flag" and "proving that America's not to be messed with." If we had not eliminated Sadaam in 2003, we would have had to do so in 2005 or 2008 or 2012 — and God forbid, but that likely would have been after some triggering tragedy far worse than 9/11, either for ourselves or for an ally.

So it's not that Iraq caused 9/11. It's that 9/11 caused us to see that we can no longer persist in the level of idiocy that lets us think we're winning or that we're safe so long as we "keep bin Ladin in his box," or "keep Sadaam in his box," or "keep Kim Jong Il in his box."

There is no box.

(3) Mike Thomas made the following comment | Oct 5, 2003 9:41:38 PM | Permalink

You make many good points, Mr. Beldar, and I appreciate the civil tone of your arguments. Let me make just a few other counterpoints in an effort to push this somewhat closer to a consensus position.

First off, I find the whole idea of a "War on Terrorism" to be somewhat disingenuous. It is a war with no end and one that cannot be won. It's like saying that we are going to war against murderers or war against evil.

I think that we should be at war against al Qaeda. That would give us a definable target and an achievable goal that could be accomplished. I fully supported Bush's decision to go into Afghanistan against al Qaeda - but I see his decision to go after Iraq as being an unrelated detour that is sapping our strength and willpower to address the real problems at hand.

I don't believe it is accurate to say there were "ample points of contact between bin Ladin and the al-Qaeda organization on the one hand, and Sadaam Husein's regime on the other."

As I understand it, one of the reasons that we supported Saddam back in the 1980s during his war with Iran was because he was a secular leader who we could use to counter the religious fundamentalism that was sweeping across Iran and many other parts of the Middle East. Bin Laden is a religious zealot. Saddam is a thug. They don't get along and never have.

Another problem I have with the over-vilification of Saddam (i.e. hyping up a regional criminal into some kind of Hitleresque threat to world peace) is our using as examples of his villiany crimes he committed back when he was still considered our ally in the fight against Iran. Many of the terrorist connections that the administration cites - such as Abu Nidal - happened back then during the Reagan and Bush I presidencies. Colin Powell recently visited a mass grave of Kurds killed by Saddam and most news reports failed to mention that the mass killing occurred in March of 1989 - one month before we helped Saddam beat Iran by blasting their Navy. What was our response to the mass killings when they happened? We tried to lay the blame on Iran and then renewed diplomatic relations with Iraq.

I'm not trying to be an apologist for Saddam. I'm glad that he is out of power. I'm also glad that the Taliban is out of power. But that was not our purpose for going into Afghanistan. That is not why we start wars - to overthrow corrupt and evil rulers. We are not a nation of crusaders with a superhuman military that can go all over the globe righting wrongs. It is not feasible and it is not practical. This war is not practical and I'm afraid we are going to pay a high price for Bush's miscalculation.

But there is a way that we can and do deal with corrupt and evil rulers. We join with our allies around the world and we isolate them and put them in a box.

I'll make one final point even though I know it is close to being sacreligious. The world has not really changed since 9-11. All of the disparate "terrorist" groups around the world have not suddenly ganged up against us. Iraq was no more of a threat after 9-11 than it was when Dick Cheney was over there raking in millions of dollars with Haliburton rebuilding Saddam's oilfields. That is what the Kay Report has revealed.

I hope that we can turn it around now that we are there with no more loss of life. But I'm not optimistic.

(4) omit made the following comment | Oct 6, 2003 11:21:24 AM | Permalink

Let's not forget the Saudi-Egyptian connections that keep coming up. Should we attack Saudi Arabia since most of the hijackers (and Bin Laden himself) came from Saudi Arabia? They were harboring terrorists. What about the government letting Saudis (including relatives of Bin Laden) fly out of America soon after 9/11?

(5) Mark Harden made the following comment | Oct 6, 2003 2:21:22 PM | Permalink

But there is a way that we can and do deal with corrupt and evil rulers. We join with our allies around the world and we isolate them and put them in a box.

Good idea, Mike. Maybe next time we can impose sanctions for ten or eleven years - oh, wait...

(6) Laura Nichols made the following comment | Oct 26, 2003 6:46:27 PM | Permalink

The biggest problem I have with this "war on terrorism" is something Mike brushed on above. Where does it stop? Does it ever stop? Do we just keep moving from country to country until they all think like we do, and act like we do? Obviously, that's not even remotely possible.

A few weeks after 9-11 happened a friend of mine from South Africa said something that really struck me. His comment was that, as sad as he felt for America and Americans, he felt that they were finally simply getting the wake up call to facts that the rest of the world had been aware of for decades. Terrorism happens every day in Israel, in Pakistan, even happens unfortunately often in England and Ireland and many other countries. They've been fighting their "wars on terrorism" for a long, long time. Yet innocent people continue to die every day, as there's no such thing as a war that spares the innocent. What have they accomplished? What are we accomplishing with our war? Are we truly safer, or does it just make us feel better to believe that we are? Sure, with the scouring of Iraq we've removed some biological and chemical weapons that could have been used against us. But it wasn't a bomb or a missle that killed thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, was it. It was box cutters and passion and a mania convinced of its right. And no war that stops short of genocide is going to put a stop to that.

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