Approaching the Nadir
No one ever accused me of being a blind optimist, but if you had told me that 5 years after 9/11 we would be in the current dismal situation, I would have laughed you out of the room. After all, the attacks that Tuesday morning were a wake-up call. Right? If you had told me that we would still be fighting the Taliban five years later I would have simply not believed you. Who would have? The Taliban? Five years later?
Bush, who once seemed to have the will, fortitude and political support to wage The Long War, is now the lamest of lame ducks. Without some unforeseeable change in circumstances in the next two years, Bush will leave the US worse off than he found it in terms of our security, foreign policy and finances. To me he was always the least bad choice but that is hardly praise.
Not that I place too much blame on Bush personally. The problem rests with our political class as a whole, not merely with one party (and of course, beyond that, with the American people themselves). Clinton tried the twin strategies of ignoring al Qaeda and forging a grand bargain between Israel and Arafat’s PLO. Both failed miserably. Bush tried surgical, decapitating military efforts (so surgical that in some ways each resembled a coup d’etat more than a war) followed by democratization. It is too late for any reasonable success in either Afghanistan or Iraq. We are left with choosing between different shades of failure.
Clinton tried ignoring and accommodating them. Bush tried liberating and democratizing them. Yet each year the enemy expands its efforts against us. It’s a dark time, the season of the pessimists.
Iran will build the nukes its messianist tyrants lust after. Politically they have out maneuvered us. Any military strike on the Shi’a theocrats will at best delay the program while reaping substantial political gains for them, both domestically and with Muslims worldwide, from Birmingham to Lahore to Sydney. I’m half-convinced that they want us to attack so that they can collect the political jackpot. Look at Hezbollah’s big win in Lebanon.
The era of the precision bombing is over if it ever existed. In material terms Hezbollah lost the Battle for South Lebanon. But Hezbollah can replenish missiles and men. The mere survival of Hezbollah was victory. The same goes for Iran but the stakes are higher and the stage is larger. Any strike against Iran that leaves the theocrats alive and in power is a victory for them and for global jihadism. In boxing terms, we are the heavyweight champions and as such we cannot win on points. If we enter the ring, we must be focused on a knock-out, whether with the first punch in Round 1 or with the last in Round 12. To leave our enemy standing, even if he is bruised, broken and blinded, is defeat.
To many people this stinks of ‘disproportionate force’, the latest sin among the international community. And Americans, from political elites to my mother, don’t like seeing lots of dead bodies on the news. Photos of glass-eyed babies pulled from the rubble tend to elicit sympathy. They would much rather ‘win hearts and minds’. (The thought of stopping the dissemination of such images never crosses our minds. Another failure of imagination.)
We cannot simultaneously wage war and win hearts and minds. In Iraq and Afghanistan we have chosen to do neither.
Since Vietnam Americans (not just our political and military leaders) have become ‘allergic to casualties’, American casualties and casualties in general. But, to quote Nathan Bedford Forrest, “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” By refusing to kill we refuse to fight. How can one win if one refuses to fight?
The list of lost opportunities in Iraq staggers the mind. As we all have seen, merely taking Baghdad did not win the war, only the battle. Over the next phase of the war we should have used such draconian but proven methods as shooting looters, razing insurgent cities like Fallujah and Rammadi, killing al Sadr and crushing his militia, mining and fortifying the borders with Iran and Syria. But this is beyond the capacity of Bush and the current class of American leaders, of either party.
(As the descendent of many generations of southerners who is married to a Japanese national I have an idea about how nations are conquered: kill or maim a significant percentage of men between 15 and 50; destroy the cities, infrastructure, crops, and homes; bankrupt everyone by making the currency worthless; reduce the populace to such a state of destitution that people must spend their waking hours looking for food rather than plotting insurgencies. American troops brought chocolate and shoes to the Japanese only after the government surrendered unconditionally and most people were living on 600 calories a day. First win the war; then win the hearts and minds.)
Where does this leave us? The picture is not pretty. As even supporters of the war in Iraq acknowledge, Iraq is fighting a civil war. Perhaps we can yet stop this somehow, but after three years of floundering who thinks we can suddenly save the day? The consequences of this Sunni-Shia civil war range from terrible to abyssmal.
Iran is rising. It has never been stronger militarily, politically or financially. Its missiles can reach Israel and probably central Europe, perhaps as far as Vienna. Its prestige among Sunnis is probably at or near an all time high. Iran controls one blatant proxy with Hezbollah, whose leader is now the greatest Arab-wide hero since Nasser. Iran controls a near-proxy with Syria. Iranian agents and bagmen crawl over Iraq. Iran’s influence over Hamas increases with each passing crises.
Our allies are in increasingly dire straits. The global Sunni insurgency against the West has soldiers in every country in Western Europe. Our closets allies weaken by the day as they are caught between a fifth column of immigrant terrorists and their supporters and a culture of denial and human rights legalism. Crowds march in European capitals with signs saying “We Are All Hezbollah.” Britain could crackdown on its Muslims, increasing surveillance, incarceration, and profiling, but only at the cost of further alienating them, of providing yet more grievances, more material for jihadist propaganda. The Brits can ignore or accommodate or arrest their domestic jihadists. Each path leads to more conflict.
The time for easy solutions has long passed, not just in Britain but throughout Europe. This quote from Livy, which I found, fittingly, in the opening pages of Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, seems apt:
We reached our last days when we could endure neither our vices nor their remedies.
Israel’s security falls in inverse relation to the rising popularity of anti-Semitism. From the Norway to Malaysia, from Tehran to Berkeley, from the offices of UN to the studios of the BBC, anti-Semitism infects the world, spreading like a pop culture fad (“it’s this season’s must-have accessory”). In marketing terms, anti-Semitism has gone viral. It’s the hate that fits everyone. It matches whatever you’re wearing, whether a burqa or a Che t-shirt. Anti-Semitism unites the far Left and the extreme Right; the educated and the ignorant; the pious and the secular; the sophisticated and the crude. In a perverse way Jew-hatred is the greatest unifying force in the world today.
Of course, things can always get worse. And they probably will.