As we neared three years of fighting in World War II, Patton was stalled near Germany for want of gas, V-2 rockets had begun raining down on England, and we were fighting to take the Marianas to use for future B-29 bases. In comparison, what exactly is our current status in this, our confusing third year of war against Islamic fascists and their autocratic sponsors?
The Strategic Picture
Despite all the near paralysis over the 9/11 Commission, Abu Ghraib, denials about the obvious prior ties between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda, and various “letters of conscience” posted by hypercritical legal grandees, former diplomats, generals, and D.C. apparatchiks, things in the strategic sense are ever so slowly looking up for the United States.
Unlike the Cold War, when our tactical options were circumscribed by nuclear enemies, today the world’s powers—Russia, India, China, Britain, Australia, Japan, and Eastern Europe—are decidedly unfriendly to radical Islam and growing more so daily.
Two-thirds of al Qaeda’s leaders are either dead or in jail. Their sanctuaries, sponsors, and kindred spirits in Afghanistan and Iraq are long gone. Detention is increasingly common for Islamicists in Europe and America. The Hamas intifada has failed; its implosion serves as a warning to al Qaeda that Western democracies can still fight back. There is also a lesson for America that even in our postmodern world most people still admire principled success: No one is lamenting the recent targeted killings of Hamas bullies or the preemptive assassination of suicide bombers.
Russia looks at al Qaeda through the prism of Chechnya. For all its triangulation Russia wants America to succeed. The recent carnage at Beslan has reminded the world that Islamic fascism transcends particular regional grievances but indiscriminately applies its common method of barbarity worldwide—in Afghanistan, Bali, Iraq, Israel, Istanbul, Madrid, New York, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Washington.
The problem with China’s stance toward radical Islam within its borders is that it calls not for appeasement but for outright liquidation. India assures the world that the old chauvinism about Pakistan’s heralded “Islamic bomb” has grown mute.
Europe, led by France and Germany, saw a chance for both profit and psychological satisfaction by opposing the United States. But recently it has realized the shortsightedness of such a policy and belatedly grasped that al Qaeda terrorists despise Europeans as much if not more than they do Americans. European ingratitude has just about ensured an end to American subsidized defense of the continent. All this does not mean the world’s other powers will aid us—far from it—only that they will continue opportunistically and in public to chide us while privately praying for, and at times contributing to, our success.
So the world of the radical Islamist shrinks. Moderate Arabs understand that they increasingly suffer from guilt by association around the world—thanks to bin Laden and his epigones. The parlor game of anti-Americanism has turned deadly. Terrorists kill hundreds in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey, ignoring calls from once-appeasing imams to stop dismembering Muslims. Being anti-American in the Middle East does not necessarily win you exemption from al Qaeda—the recent kidnapping of Frenchmen in Iraq attests to that. The fascists do not want to put a fashionable Islamic-nationalist veneer on upscale Arabs but rather to transport them lock, stock, and barrel back to the Dark Ages.
Even countries like South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan are beginning to realize that the United States alone protects their sea-lanes to the Middle East and that opportunistic posturing serves no purpose in a global war against beheaders and their world of barbarism other than to throw away 60 years of American military commitment. It is fashionable to say that the United States is isolated; few, other than a socialist prime minister in Spain or a Howard Dean, really believe that.
The key is now to be found with past neutrals such as Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, whose former coddling of and subsidies to killers are bringing them only mayhem. If they wake up and look at the world lining up against them and then close down madrassas, “charities,” and borderland sanctuaries and expel the terrorists, the tide will turn. These nations will never overtly join the hostile Syria-Iran-Lebanon block, but if they stay neutral, they will facilitate our enemies even as they profess allegiance to our cause. Time will tell—but we cannot win this war until bin Laden’s cohorts feel they are in danger in Pakistan or until those who would behead Americans know it is suicidal to do so in Saudi Arabia.
America must ensure that there is no place where terrorists can eat, sleep, or organize. But that goal is presently impossible, given the hostility of Iran, Syria, and Lebanon and the infiltration of Islamic sympathizers into the governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
Hearts and Minds
For the first two years of this war, critics whined that we were “not getting the message out.” But after Afghanistan and Iraq, the beheadings, and the bombings, most on the planet know that the choice is between civilization and barbarism. The key is not preferring the good cause in the abstract but risking pain for the right choice in the here and now.
A radical strain of Islam is trying to capitalize on the failure of Arab autocracies in order to galvanize the Muslim Street under the reactionary promise of a return to a mythical caliphate. We know that and they know that. All that remains is for those in the gallery in the Middle East to choose sides—that is, determine who in the end is going to win and thus end up either as that winner’s powerful friends or as its weak enemies.
The Arab League hates us not because we are going to lose or because we will install strongmen if we prevail but because they are terrified we will win and sponsor consensual governments of the type that would put such ossified functionaries with blood on their hands out to pasture. Despite Abu Ghraib and whining over the West Bank, most Arabs know that the United States gives billions to Egypt and Jordan, does nothing while the Gulf autocracies cut production to jack up oil prices, saves Muslims in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait, and Somalia, and provides billions to Iraq at a level not seen since the Marshall Plan.
What they are not yet convinced of, however, is that the United States intends to stay and fight to the finish, or—as was true after the murdering in Lebanon, after the expulsion of the Soviets in Afghanistan, after the 1991 failure to take Baghdad, after Mogadishu, after mostly silence in the face of 25 years of terrorist attacks from Teheran to Yemen, and after the pullback from Fallujah and Najaf—whether it will tire, find an exit strategy, and head home. That “honorable departure,” of course, would leave friends and supporters to deal with local fascists, as was true in the past in the case of the Taliban, the irregulars in Sudan, the mullahs in Iran, the Hezbollah killers in the Bekka Valley, and Sadr’s Mahdists.
On the ground, we are in a seesaw race with the terrorists—a back and forth of challenge and response as we refine tactics to counter and anticipate everything from improvised explosive devices, suicide bombings, and televised head choppings, with the next ghoulish twist still on the horizon. Yet each time the Americans are allowed to engage in a real firefight, we win—and almost always without a groundswell of popular resistance. As we harp about the fighting, a battle-hardened cadre of American veterans has emerged that is liquidating its opponents every day and thus gradually changing politics on the ground. The media have completely missed the story of just how good our combat battalions have become.
So the problem is not armed insurrection per se but local apathy, not thousands shooting us in the street but millions more quiet about the hundreds in their midst who are. We must continue to get Iraqi faces on television, put them to work on the reconstruction, back their forces with precision air strikes—all the while rarely showing Americans even as they kill terrorists.
Iraqis may shed crocodile tears when Bechtel workers are blown up trying to finish a new sewer system for them, but they will surely wince when their own are vaporized trying to ensure that their raw sewage is no longer in the streets. Many of our tactical lapses throughout the past year center on our inability to grasp the human desire for honor, prestige, and public attention—nowhere so evident as in the male-dominated and tribal Middle East.
But if the pulse of the strategic, tactical, and ideological theaters suggests we can win this war, the home front is not so bright. The few hundred American lunatics who tried to explain away 9/11 (or apologize for it) turned into thousands a few weeks later who swore we either would or should lose in Afghanistan. Now millions see our ongoing struggle in Iraq as either immoral or inept. The personality or nature of George Bush did not create this cascading anti-war movement. It was rather fueled by the blood and treasure spent to eliminate the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, together with a has-been 1960s generation who felt that there was still one more creaky return to the barricades left in them.
Right after 9/11, some of us thought it was impossible for leftist critics to undermine a war against fascists who were sexist, fundamentalist, homophobic, racist, ethnocentric, intolerant of diversity, and mass murderers of Kurds and Arabs and who had the blood of 3,000 Americans on their hands. We were dead wrong. In fact, they did just that. Abu Ghraib is on the front pages daily. Stories of thousands of American soldiers in combat against terrorist killers from the Hindu Kush to Fallujah do not merit the D section. Senator Kennedy’s two years of insane outbursts should have earned him formal censure rather than a commemoration from the Democratic establishment. Michael Moore should not be sitting next to an ex-president at the Democratic convention.
What a litany of distractions! Words—“preemption,” “unilateralism,” “hegemony”—whiz by and lose all meaning. Names—“Halliburton,” “Chalabi,” “INC”—become little more than red meat. Vocabulary is turned upside down: “Contractors,” who at great risk restore power and water to the poor, are now little more than “profiteers” and “opportunists”; killers are not even “terrorists” but mere “militants.” “Neocons” are wild-eyed extremists; “realists” are no longer cynics—inclined to let thousands die abroad unless the chaos interrupts transit of oil or food—but rather “sober” and “circumspect” (and likely Kerry supporters).
A depressing array of transitory personalities parades before our screen, entering stage left to grab 15 minutes of notoriety for their scripted invective, only to exit on the right into oblivion. Who can remember all these one-tell-all-book, one-weekend-on-the-Sunday-news-programs personalities—Hans Blix, Scott Ritter, Howard Dean, Paul O’Neil, Joe Wilson, Richard Clark, or Richard Ben-Veniste? In between their appearances on Sunday morning television or 60 Minutes, a few D.C. functionaries are carted out for periodic shouting—an unhinged Al Gore, a puffed-up Ted Kennedy, a faux-serious Bob Kerrey, and occasionally a Senator Byrd or Hollings. And since the very day after 9/11 we’ve gotten the Vietnam-era retreads—Peter Arnett, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Robert Scheer, John Dean, and Seymour Hersh—tottering out with the latest conspiracies about the old bogeymen and “higher-ups.”
We are winning the military war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The terrorists are on the run. And slowly, even ineptly, we are achieving our political goals of democratic reform in once-awful places. Thirty years of genocide, vast forced transfers of whole peoples, the desecration of entire landscapes, a ruined infrastructure, and a brutalized and demoralized civilian psyche are being remedied, often under fire. All this and more has been achieved at the price of political turmoil, deep divisions in the West—here and abroad—and the emergence of a strong minority, led mostly by elites, who simply wish it all to go away.
Whether this influential, snarling minority—so prominent in the media, on campuses, in government, and in the arts—succeeds in turning victory into defeat is open to question. Right now the matter rests on the nerve of a half dozen in Washington who are daily slandered—Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz—and with brilliant and courageous soldiers in the field. They are fighting desperately against the always-ticking clock of American impatience and are forced to confront an Orwellian world in which their battle sacrifice is ignored or deprecated while killing a vicious enemy is tantamount to murder.
No, we—along with those brave Iraqis who have opted for freedom—could very easily still lose this war that our brave troops are somehow now winning.