I wouldn’t necessarily conflate being more aggressive with being more brutal. We can patrol more, embed more advisors, shoot and arrest more insurgents, all without being gratuitously cruel or needlessly overbearing to civilian sensibilities.
Here is what I think happened in Iraq after April 2003. Bolstered by a 70-percent approval rating, and still smarting from all the prewar hysteria from the Left, the Bush administration felt that it could run out the clock, so to speak.
Thus, each time a challenge arose—looting, the Fallujah outbreak, the Sadr uprising—their idea was to finesse the crisis as much as possible. They were afraid to squander the capital of hard-won public support through (unneeded?) escalation, escalation that would increase casualties and only encourage further domestic and international condemnation of the war.
As a result of this policy, public support vanished anyway, in dribs and drabs, each time we did not react strongly and decisively enough to a provocation. The administration thought, apparently, that using more aggressive tactics would only further incite the growing anti-war movement and that the good news of progress in reconstruction would only continue to be ignored by a biased media.
And so with a whimper rather than a bang, our complacency and over-sensitive attention to perceived public opinion made us ever less aggressive and ever more attuned to “force protection”—at precisely the time more and more offensive operations were needed to break the insurgency and win back public opinion.
Now we must shatter that complacency and do in nine months what textbooks warn takes years. It is still not too late; history might still record as a considerable military achievement the removal of Saddam and the creation of a constitutional government in Iraq. The President and the military believe they can pull it off, while the opposition (whose proposals to withdraw are not matched by votes to reduce budget appropriations) remains, to say the least, doubtful. But the American public’s patience will, apparently, tolerate this final effort.
I am tired of reading the latest declarations of moral outrage from politicians and pundits blaming Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Abizaid, etc., for “their” three-year-long occupation that ruined “our” perfect three-week war. What happened in Iraq pales when compared to the horrifying mistakes our government and military made in the Civil War, in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam. What would this generation of politicians and journalists have said after Cold Harbor and the Battle of the Wilderness, after the two-year-long nightmare of the fall of France, after our World War II losses in the Atlantic, after the debacle in Greece, after the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk? One can only imagine.
All that matters now is correcting our mistakes, countering the defeatists, and defeating the insurgents. We have to keep firmly in mind the correct notion that a functional democracy in Iraq would be the worst nightmare of jihadists the world over, of Iran, Syria, and the royal Gulf “moderates.” Allowing Iraq to devolve into the Lebanon of the 1980’s or the Afghanistan of the 1990’s, on the other hand, would restore al Qaeda’s lost sanctuary and provide a new base of operations for Iranian-backed terrorists. To paraphrase one commentator, such a failure would inflict “1,000 Mogadishus”-worth of damage on the reputation of the U.S. military and on a nascent and necessary U.S. Middle East policy, a policy seeking to transcend the dangerous (and cynical) “realism” of the past.
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Boot and Hanson, Final Round: Fixing Our Mistakes
Must-Reads from Magazine
Jeremy Corbyn's dovishness on Russia doesn't wash anymore.
It was hard to come away from British Prime Minister Theresa May’s address to the House of Commons on Monday without the distinct impression that she had accused Russia of committing an act of war.
May declared that Sergei Scripal and his daughter Yulia, who remain hospitalized in critical condition, had been exposed along with perhaps hundreds of others to a sophisticated nerve agent on March 4. Skripal’s son and brother had already died under mysterious circumstances and many thought that he, a former Russian spy, had been targeted by Moscow for assassination. May confirmed those suspicions.
With grave portent, the prime minister announced that her government had concluded that it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin was “responsible” for that attack. “There are only two plausible explanations,” she continued. “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” Either of these two conclusions amounts to an act of war, albeit with varying degrees of disregard for British sovereignty.
May left Moscow with just over 24 hours to provide London with a satisfactory response to her accusations. “Should there be no credible response,” the prime minister concluded, “we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
This is ominous and sobering talk. Rational adults, to say nothing of the men and women in government, should respond to these claims with the judiciousness they deserve. Of course, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is neither judicious nor rational.
Corbyn took the opportunity to respond to May’s contention that the U.K. had been subject to an attack by a foreign power. He rose only to contend that Conservative MPs, too, had been the collective recipients of Russian cash, which he implied was indicative of their conflict of interest on the issue of Russian sanctions. “The actions the government takes once the facts are clear needs to be both decisive and proportionate, and focused on reducing conflicts and tensions rather than increasing them,” Corbyn concluded over the din of his colleague’s jeers and boos.
The Labour leader’s toadying obsequiousness in the face of an attack by a foreign power prompted a series of rebukes, and not just from conservatives. “When our country is under attack,” said Labour MP Chris Leslie of Corbyn’s political point-scoring, “it is not appropriate.” Labour MP John Woodcock agreed. “It would put our national security at significant risk if we were led by anyone who did not understand the gravity of the threat Russia poses to this nation,” he added. Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party—no bastion of conservatism there—insisted that a “firm response” was in order. “Russia simply cannot be allowed to launch attacks on our streets with impunity,” she wrote.
You can forgive a center-left peacenik for getting a bit of whiplash. Jeremy Corbyn’s blinkered pacifism was once rather boilerplate leftist Russophilia. The U.K.’s Labour Party leader has devoted his career to the cause of “peace,” a prerequisite for which seems to be the sacrifice of Western values, to say nothing of its self-respect.
Late last year, Corbyn received an international peace prize for his work on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—a group that demands the dissolution of the British nuclear stockpile, the closure of its nuclear power facilities, and its withdrawal from the NATO alliance. He has thrown in his lot with the Chavistas in Venezuela and heaped praise upon the Castro family in Cuba—two socialist basket cases with virtually no respect for human rights or global stability. He played host to those he called “our friends” from terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. He seems utterly unmoved by the influence wielded by Kremlin-funded disinformation outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) network. He has bucked the consensus shared by his colleagues in Labour to defend the right of these groups to broadcast on Russian soil. Russian automated social media accounts have, in turn, supported Corbyn.
Here, too, kind of feckless and self-loathing response to direct aggression used to be standard liberal fare. The United States was to blame for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, culminating in the dismantling of that nation. You see, the West recognized the independence of Kosovo, bombed Serbia amid accusations of ongoing genocide, and endorsed the desire of some Soviet Republics to ascend into NATO. Ten years after that enlargement process effectively halted, it and America were still to blame when Putin invaded and carved up neighboring Ukraine. If there is now a “second Cold War” between the West and a revanchist Russia, the party to blame for that condition is the West and its aggressive allies.
It is no small miracle that this is now a minority sentiment on the liberal left. It’s quite likely that partisanship is the happy force of nature responsible for the left’s transformation into a party of hawks when it comes to Russia. Moscow dashed Barack Obama’s hopes of engineering a peaceful resolution of his own “red line” in Syria, humiliated him in Ukraine, and backed him into a corner on Iran. Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 elections in Donald Trump’s favor and Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin have created a powerful set of incentives for the Western left to abandon their traditional fealty to their old allies in the Kremlin. The effort to absolve Russia of its sins and erect elaborate and exculpatory moral equivalencies between the Kremlin’s conduct and America’s is one of many liberal impulses shared by ostensibly Republican President Donald Trump.
And yet, the left’s tough talk on Russia was a cost-free proposition until now. For years, the Russian Federation has played a reckless game. A declining power with a narrow window in which to act to preserve its global authority, Russia has heedlessly abetted human rights abuses and attacks on Western civilian targets. This latest in Britain is only the most brazen. Those on the left and the right who hope to prevent disaster must now unite in a good-faith effort to present Russia with a set of consequences for future aggressive actions that are sufficient to deter Moscow’s provocateurs. If they shirk this responsibility, the next miscalculation could demand a more forceful response than a speech before Parliament.
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A telling tactic.
In 2016, the University of Minnesota Student Association amended a bill that targeted Israel and passed a more general bill on socially responsible investing.
Not surprisingly, this bill, which did not single out Israel among all the nations of the world for special condemnation, did nothing to satisfy the anti-Israel activists of UMN-Divest at the University of Minnesota. So this year, they gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the student government election ballot. The referendum asks, “Should the students of the University of Minnesota demand the Board of Regents divest from companies that are 1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights 2) maintain and establish private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violate indigenous sovereignty?” The full text became available, according to the editorial board of The Minnesota Daily, shortly before March 5th. Voting, too, began on March 5th.
As the editorial board pointed out, whatever your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you should agree that having virtually no time for debate or discussion is no way to handle a controversial issue on a university campus. You don’t have to agree with UMN President Eric Kaler that, “the inclusion on the ballot of a non-binding referendum that names Israel is exacerbating tension and fueling discrimination toward Jewish students.” If you care at all about discrimination against Jewish students, however, you should agree that a resolution of this magnitude ought not to be adopted without reflection. Those who blithely voted for the resolution as in the same cavalier manner that they voted for this year’s homecoming festivities organizing committee do not, perhaps, bear most of the blame for the resolution’s narrow passage. As is so often the case with BDS, though, the organizers of the referendum effort have covered themselves with shame, and all for a half-day news story and the pleasure of being ignored by the Board of Regents.
It is reassuring that some faculty members at UMN were moved to sign a letter in opposition to the resolution. I agree with the signers, of course, that although the resolution also concerns indigenous rights and prisons, the main intent of the activists leading the referendum effort is to “delegitimize Israel.” But only fourteen faculty members signed. Perhaps others were uncomfortable signing on to a full-throated attack on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), about which most of them presumably know almost nothing. Those faculty members might have at least indicated that most of the voters, too, presumably know almost nothing about BDS, and it runs counter to the spirit of the university to rush such a vote. If professors are unwilling to stand for Israel, they should be willing to stand against ignorance.
BDS, which according to one scorecard has had just 54 campus victories over a thirteen year period, is hardly a success (indeed, BDS, preliminary results indicate, has just taken a big loss at the University of Illinois). Narrow victories after hasty votes like these do as much damage to BDS’ reputation as they do to enhance it. The losers here are not the pro-Israel contingent at UMN. They should consider, as their opponents typically do when they lose, bringing up the issue again next year. Those Jewish students who justly feel targeted by the referendum have certainly suffered a loss. So, too, has the university itself been humiliated. In spite of the worthy effort of its president, UMN has been embarrassed by a small proportion of its student body.
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The right thing to do is also the smart thing to do.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Donald Trump last week, he had two main items on his agenda: thanking Trump for his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and urging U.S. action on Iran. At first glance, these items seem unrelated. In fact, they’re closely intertwined. The decision to relocate the U.S. embassy has turned out to be a strategic building block in Trump’s effort to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran.
To understand why, consider the dilemma facing his administration when it first took office. Without a serious American threat to scrap the nuclear deal, there was no chance that even America’s European allies–much less Russia, China and Iran–would agree to negotiate a fix for some of the deal’s biggest flaws. Yet conventional wisdom held that the administration would never dare flout the whole rest of the world, along with virtually the entire U.S. policy community, by withdrawing from the deal. So how was it possible to make the threat seem credible short of actually walking away from the deal?
Enter the embassy issue. Here, too, conventional wisdom held that the administration would never dare flout the whole rest of the world, along with virtually the entire U.S. policy community, by moving the embassy. Moreover, the embassy issue shared an important structural similarity with the Iran deal: Just as the president must sign periodic waivers to keep the Iran deal alive, he must sign periodic waivers to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Consequently, this turned out to be the perfect issue to show that Trump really would defy the world and nix the Iran deal if it isn’t revised to his satisfaction. In fact, the process he followed with the embassy almost perfectly mimics the process he has so far followed on the Iran deal.
The first time the embassy waiver came up for review last June, Trump signed it. He vowed, however, that he wouldn’t keep doing so forever. The second time, in December, he officially announced the embassy move, but said it would take several years to find a site in Jerusalem and construct the new building. So, in the meantime, he signed the waiver again. Then, last month, Trump announced that the embassy would officially relocate to temporary quarters in the existing U.S. consulate in Jerusalem in May. In other words, there will be no third signing of the waiver.
The Iran waivers have so far followed a similar pattern. The first time the deal came up for review, Trump issued the requisite certification that Iran was in compliance and that the deal served America’s national interests, but vowed he wouldn’t keep doing so forever. The second time, he formally decertified the deal, but once again signed the waiver that prevents sanctions on Iran from being reinstated. The third time, he signed the waiver once again, but explicitly threatened that this would be the last time.
If it weren’t for the embassy move, this threat would be treated in capitals around the world as so much bluster. Instead, world leaders are forced to take it seriously. True, there’s a chance that Trump is just bluffing. But there’s also a real chance that he’s serious, just as he proved to be on the embassy issue.
This means that European leaders, who initially refused even to discuss any changes to a deal they like just the way it is, are now feeling pressured to offer at least some sop to Trump if only to keep him from blowing the deal up entirely. Last month, for instance, French President Emanuel Macron threw his support behind a plan to impose surveillance and sanctions on Iran’s unfettered ballistic missile program, which is one of several key loopholes the administration wants closed.
The Iran deal didn’t motivate Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The primary reason to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem was because it was the right thing to do. It’s something Congress decided should be done over 20 years ago, and it’s something presidential candidates from both parties have repeatedly promised but never fulfilled. Above all, it’s because the reality is that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and it is ludicrous to keep pretending otherwise.
But it just goes to show that the right thing is also sometimes the smart thing. Granted, there’s no guarantee that Trump’s effort to fix the Iran deal will bear fruit; the Europeans are trying hard to fob him off with mere cosmetic tweaks. Yet there would be no chance at all if it weren’t for the credible threat created by the embassy move. And if anything meaningful does come of this effort–even if only a modest improvement, like cracking down on Iran’s ballistic missiles–it will be largely because Trump did the right thing on Jerusalem.
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Podcast: Summitry and Special Elections
A possible summit with North Korea and a possible bellwether election in Pennsylvania take up our time on the first COMMENTARY podcast of the week. Give a listen.
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The root of the conundrum.
For at least two years now, liberals in the U.S. and Europe have been shouting the same mantra in a thousand different forms. The mantra, in essence, is this: You should be happy! Why aren’t you happy! How dare you be unhappy!
The “you” in question are citizens across the West, who have been registering their discontent with the liberal world–whether at the ballot box, in their workplaces, or, most commonly, on social media. The “you” also includes populations beyond the West’s frontiers, where strongmen are waxing, and liberal-democratic aspiration is sadly on the wane. Everywhere, the things that liberals most despise–barriers and particularism–are returning with great force.
Hence, the mantra. Many liberals seem to think that the way to ballast a teetering consensus is to repeat–loudly and slowly–all the material benefits their philosophy has produced: massive reductions in global poverty rates; near universal education and literacy; unprecedented connectivity and mobility; myriad gadgets and scientific wonders; and on and on. As Harvard’s Steven Pinker puts it, “The Enlightenment is working.”
You should be happy! And don’t forget to thank John Locke before going to sleep!
They have a point. These advances owe in large part to the liberal philosophy of individual rights, cultural pluralism and free markets that has served as the West’s operating system for some four centuries–and the world’s since the end of the Cold War. But apparently material benefits, without more, don’t suffice to legitimate liberalism today. Man doesn’t live by bread alone, and people hanker for other things besides YouTube videos and Fitbits. Liberal democracy’s self-appointed guardians are left feeling, well, unhappy.
Consider four recent developments, from four disparate places, which upend contemporary liberalism’s expectations for the world as it should be:
In China, President Xi Jinping has purged rival power centers, cracked down against religious liberty, and revived the Communist Party’s own old-time religion, Marxism. This month, he took a decisive step toward becoming president-for-life. All this runs counter to the liberal faith that economic growth goes hand-in-hand with liberalization. It turns out that China’s rulers–and, crucially, the country’s rising middle classes–aren’t prepared to take the leap into political freedom that is supposed to come with capitalist prosperity.
Something similar, and equally baffling, is taking place in Saudi Arabia. There, the energetic Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is pursuing an ambitious program of liberalization. He has granted women the right to drive and to enter soccer stadiums, brought movie theaters back to the Kingdom, and pushed young Saudis off the petro-dole and into the private economy. At the same time, however, MBS has centralized power–with himself at the very center. Western liberals are queasy. This isn’t the Arab Spring-style Saudi revolution from below that they had hoped for. But young Saudis love their man, and the national mood is optimistic.
Then there is Italy, where last weekend’s general election handed a sweeping victory to populist, anti-immigration and Euroskeptic parties. Italy’s center-left Democratic Party has joined a number of its sister European social-democratic parties on life support. The Silvio Berlusconi-led center right, meanwhile, plays second fiddle to hard-right leaders, who take a much tougher stance on questions of immigration and integration. As I wrote, the Italian election suggests that the popular rebellion against Europe’s model of highhanded, bureaucratic liberalism is very much alive.
Closer to home, President Trump is making good on his pledge to shut down so-called sanctuary cities and states, jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with the federal government on enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. The Democrats who run these states and municipalities increasingly seek to abolish the distinction between legal and illegal immigration and, indeed, to blur if not erase America’s borders as markers of national sovereignty. But now those dreams are running up against an administration that decisively rejects the vision of a borderless world underpinning the Democrats’ immigration agenda. My suspicion is that the Democrats will not overcome popular resistance to their vision.
In each of these cases, liberals have lost sight of fundamental, pre-liberal truths that complicate their picture of human affairs.
China and Saudi Arabia show that civilizations and cultures really are different, sometimes radically so, and in politically significant ways. In most of the world and across most of human history, moreover, the desire for stable authority is much more potent than the demand for individual freedom or representative government.
The Italian and American examples, meanwhile, are a reminder that even in liberalism’s Western heartlands, people want order and meaningful communion. They seek order, in the sense that they want to have a say in who gets to enjoy the privileges of citizenship. A chaotic immigration system is an offense against good order. They long for meaningful community, because community makes possible a common life and a shared vision of the common good. As the classically liberal French philosopher Pierre Manent told me last year, humanity-at-large cannot provide meaningful community because it is “too large and too diverse.”
These aren’t earthshaking ideas, yet, among today’s liberals, they come across that way. Liberalism is disoriented–and disorienting–because it no longer has a sense of its own limits. Talk of human nature, political communion, or tradition sounds quaint, even alien, to contemporary liberal ears. “Didn’t we overcome these things long ago?” liberals wonder, and I sometimes find it hard to blame them, because liberalism has achieved remarkable things. Free societies are the only kind I would wish to live in, which is why I remain a practical liberal.
But preserving the highest achievements of liberal civilization calls for a humbler, more chastened liberalism. Yelling at the ingrates won’t do.