For the last five years, it seems that every American use of force has resulted in hand-wringing and hypercriticism from the media and the president’s political opponents. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the wiretapping of phones used to call terror suspects abroad...the end result of the obsessive and overblown coverage of all this is to weaken the political structure that’s attempting to fight a war for the survival of Western civilization. Fortunately for the people we’re fighting, no abuse of human rights seems grave enough merit a many-months-long series of front page headlines and navel-gazing editorials. No, that’s a standard to which only the United States is held.
Don’t get me wrong: it is legitimate to question our conduct of the war, it is healthy to ponder the morality of our actions, but these days, that seems to be the only role played by the opposition and their allies in the media. And that has an effect on our ability to win wars.
There’s something about our psyche which seems to make self-criticism the new national pastime. Naturally, our political leaders know this. They know that when hundreds of newspapers and television stations align in a daily tearing-down of the war effort, the American people will eventually lose their nerve and want to give up. Others know this, too, which is why al Qaeda distributed copies of Black Hawk Down as a means to understand how the media can be used to amplify a relatively minor military failure and drive the United States from the field of battle. If terrorists provide enough negative footage to our media, they know we’ll turn and run. But if we fight too vigorously, that will be held up by our own media as evidence of our inherent evilness.
So our leaders attempt to minimize the criticism by fighting wars in a way that provide the smallest target for criticism, hoping that a politically correct war will somehow spare them from the constant barrage of defeatism from the media. But the fact is, the reality of the situation on the ground doesn’t have to bear any relation to how the media reports it. Just three weeks into the war in Afghanistan, the media declared it an unwinnable quagmire—and that was a week before the entire country fell and the remnants of the Taliban took refuge in their mountains and caves.
Victor Davis Hanson noted the dilemma faced by our military in the context of the looting that broke out in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein:
The looting should have been stopped. But by the same token, after the statue fell, had the U.S. military begun immediately to shoot looters on sight — and that was what restoring order would have required — or carpet bombed the Syrian and Iranian borders to stop infiltration, the outcry would have arisen that we were too punitive and gunning down poor and hungry people even in peace. [...]
We forget that one of the reasons for the speed of the American advance and then the sudden rush to stop military operations — as was true in the first Gulf War — was the enormous criticism leveled at the Americans for going to war in the first place, and the constant litany cited almost immediately of American abuses involving excessive force. Shooting looters may have restored order, but it also would have now been enshrined as an Abu-Ghraib-like crime — a photo of a poor “hungry” thief broadcast globally as an unarmed victim of American barbarism. We can imagine more “Highway of Death” outrage had we bombed concentrations of Shiites pouring in from Iran or jihadists from Syria going to “weddings” and “festivals” in Iraq.
Throughout this postmodern war, the military has been on the horns of a dilemma: Don’t shoot and you are indicted for being lax and allowing lawlessness to spread; shoot and you are gratuitously slandered as a sort of rogue LAPD in camouflage. We hear only of the deliberately inexact rubric “Iraqi civilian losses” — without any explanation that almost all the Iraqi dead are either (1) victims of the terrorists, (2) Iraqi security forces trying to defend the innocent against the terrorists, or (3) the terrorists themselves.
Last night, President Bush outlined some changes to our current course in Iraq and indicated that our suicidal sensitivity will no longer prevent operations from being carried out where they need to be:
In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence.
This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighbourhoods - and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.
Likewise, interference from Iran and Syria will no longer be tolerated:
These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq.
Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.
We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria.
And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.
While these changes are positive, it begs the question: what took so long? Why have we been spending so much time fighting a war in which we voluntarily rendered significant portions of the battlespace off-limits?
For nearly three years, thugs like Moqtada al Sadr have had free reign to create chaos in Baghdad. Iran and Syria have been fomenting sectarian violence in an effort to drive Iraq into civil war—and to take the heat off them. Syria knows that an unstable Iraq will keep the world’s attention focused elsewhere while they try to regain control over Lebanon and resume their Hizbollah-led proxy war on Israel. Iran knows that a rebuilt Iraq would be a major check on their power, and would allow the world to refocus attention on the mullah’s desire to acquire nuclear technology.
It’s time to untie the hands of our personnel in Iraq and fight this war to win, not to please the editors of the New York Times. Because although we can choose to abandon the battlefield in Iraq, doing so won’t make the problems disappear. Iran, Syria and al Qaeda are fighting us in Iraq now, but if we leave, will they go home and become peaceful, responsible citizens of the world? Or will they simply choose a different battlefield, one that advantages them, one that’s closer to our home instead of theirs?
We don’t get to choose whether we are at war, we only get to choose whether—and when—we fight it.
(Picture is of Victor Davis Hanson)
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