December 30, 2003
The Western Disease
by Victor Davis Hanson
The strange syndrome of our guilt and their shame.
After watching a string of editorial attacks on America both at home and from abroad in the aftermath of Saddam’s capture, I thought back to the actual record of the last two years. In 24 months the United States defeated two of the most hideous regimes in modern memory. For all the sorrow involved, it has already made progress in the unthinkable: bringing consensual government into the heart of Middle Eastern autocracy, where there has been no political heritage other than tyranny, theocracy, and dictatorship.
In liberating 50 million people from both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein it has lost so far less than 500 soldiers — some of whom were killed precisely because they waged a war that sought to minimalize not just civilian casualties but even the killing of their enemies. Contrary to the invective of Western intellectuals, the American military’s sins until recently have been of omission — preferring not to shoot looters or hunt down and kill insurgents — rather than brutal commission. While the United States has conducted these successive wars some 7,000 miles beyond its borders, it also avoided another terrorist attack of the scale of September 11 — and all the while crafting a policy of containment of North Korea and soon-to-be nuclear Iran.
Thus by any comparative standard of military history, the last two difficult years, despite setbacks and disappointments, represent a remarkable military achievement .Yet no one would ever gather even the slightest acknowledgment of such success from our Democratic grandees. Al Gore dubbed the Iraqi liberation a quagmire and, absurdly, the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Howard Dean, more absurdly, suggested that the president of the United States might have had foreknowledge of September 11. Most Americans now shudder at the thought that the former might have been president in this time of crisis — and that the latter still could be.
Often American and European writers echo the fury of Gore and Dean. For example, on the day before Saddam Hussein was captured, one could reread in the International Herald Tribune a long reprinted rant by Paul Krugman, the Princeton professor. He exclaimed, “In the end the Bush doctrine — based on delusions of grandeur about America’s ability to dominate the world through force — will collapse. What we’ve just learned is how hard and dirty the doctrine’s proponents will fight against the inevitable.” Krugman was apparently furious that American taxpayer dollars were going to be used to hire exclusively American and Coalition companies to rebuild Iraq rather than be paid out to foreign entities whose governments opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein. “Hard and dirty?”
On the same page Bob Herbert assured his foreign audience that “The Republicans are hijacking elections and redistricting the country and looting the Treasury and ignoring the Constitution and embittering our allies.” That outside entities and media have confirmed the vote counts of the Florida election, that Congress must approve federal spending and pass laws, that an independent judiciary audits our legislation, and that 60 countries are now engaged in Iraq meant nothing. “Hijacking and looting?”
The next day after Saddam’s capture I channel surfed global cable TV. A rather refined-looking French self-described expert in jurisprudence was lecturing his audience about the proper legal framework that was “acceptable” to the international community. From his dandified look he appeared a rather different sort from the Americans who crawled into Saddam’s spider hole to yank him out. Soft power I suppose is the glib pontification from the salon; hard power is dragging out mass murderers at night in Tikrit.
Next channel: Another worried-looking European analyst was raising the specter of a potential oppressed prisoner suffering at “Guantanamo” — in voicing concern for the rights of Saddam Hussein! French trading with a mass murderer, profiting from selling him arms to butcher his own people is one thing; worrying that the same monster fully understands the nuances of Western jurisprudence while in the docket is quite another. Of course, our European humanist never noted that his own country’s pusillanimity over the last decade was responsible for abetting Saddam’s reign of terror even as someone else’s audacity was for ending it.
I could go on, but you get the picture of this current madness. There is something terribly wrong, something terribly amoral with the Western intelligentsia, most prominently in academia, the media, and politics. We don’t need Osama bin Laden’s preschool jabbering about “the weak horse” to be worried about the causes of this Western disease: thousands of the richest, most leisured people in the history of civilization have become self-absorbed, ungracious, and completely divorced from the natural world — the age-old horrific realities of dearth, plague, hunger, rapine, or conquest.
Indeed, it is even worse than that: a Paul Krugman or French barrister neither knows anything of how life is lived beyond his artificial cocoon nor of the rather different men and women whose unacknowledged work in the shadows ensures his own bounty in such a pampered landscape — toil that allows our anointed to rage at those purportedly culpable for allowing the world to function differently from an Ivy League lounge or the newsroom of the New York Times. Neither knows what it is like to be in a village gassed by Saddam Hussein or how hard it is to go across the world to Tikrit and chain such a monster.
Our Western intellectuals are sheltered orchids who are naïve about the world beyond their upscale hothouses. The Western disease of deductive fury at everything the West does provides a sort of psychological relief (without costs) for apparent guilt over privileged circumstances. It is such a strange mixture of faux-populism and aristocratic snobbery. They believe only a blessed few such as themselves have the requisite education or breeding to understand the “real” world of Western pathologies and its victims.
If we accept that our aristocratic Left mutters exactly the sort of nonsense described by a host of critics from Aristophanes to Juvenal to Tom Wolfe, then just as bizarre is the Muslim world’s reaction to capture of the murderer of more Muslims than any living Muslim in the Muslim world. On reports of Saddam’s demise the same networks that aired Western professors fretting about his rights were interviewing weeping women in Palestine, somber coffeehouses in Cairo, and pompous intellectuals in Lebanon. In lockstep concern they all bemoaned the ignominious circumstances of his capture: He was found in a hole! He was dirty! And an American medic inspected him like an infected deportee! Alas, he fired not a shot.
To sum up the Arab street: It appears to care not a whit that a native psychopath butchered hundreds of thousands of its own — only that his anti-American braggadocio was revealed to be a sham to millions and that Americans of all people had to free Iraqis from such a menace. Honor and shame — the stuff of tribal societies — matter more than the lives of innocents. If a pundit from Paris was riled that Saddam was not yet advised by an international human-rights lawyer, the masses on the West Bank trumped that concern by lamenting that he had not even machine-gunned an American on his way out — or indeed done anything to restore Arab tribal pride. Lost between the shared loony sympathies of the first-world elite and the third-world clan, between refined postmodern and uncouth premodern societies, was an iota of lamentation for the dead, those rotting and dried-out bones that appear in the thousands in desert sands outside Baghdad.
Both Western pontificators and the mob in the Middle East feed off each other. Paul Krugman would rarely write a column about how abjectly immoral it was that thousands mourned the death of a mass murderer when one can say worse things about an American president who chose not to use American dollars to hire French companies to rebuild Iraq. Bob Herbert can falsely rant about a Florida election “rigged,” but seldom about an election never occurring in the Arab world. The so-called Arab street and its phony intellectuals sense that influential progressive Westerners will never censure Middle Eastern felonies if there is a chance to rage about Western misdemeanors. It is precisely this parasitic relationship between the foreign and domestic critics of the West that explains much of the strange confidence of those who planned September 11. It was the genius of bin Laden, after all, that he suspected after he had incinerated 3,000 Westerners an elite would be more likely to blame itself for the calamity — searching for “root causes” than marshalling its legions to defeat a tribe that embraced theocracy, autocracy, gender apartheid, polygamy, anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance. And why not after Lebanon, the first World Trade Center bombing, the embassies in Africa, murder in Saudi Arabia, and the USS Cole? It was the folly of bin Laden only that he assumed the United States was as far gone as Europe and that a minority of its ashamed elites had completely assumed control of American political, cultural, and spiritual life. Hatred of Israel is the most striking symptom of the Western disease. On the face of it the dilemma there is a no-brainer for any classic liberal: A consensual government is besieged by fanatical suicide killers who are subsidized and cheered on by many dictators in the Arab world. The bombers share the same barbaric methods as Chechens, the 9/11 murderers, al Qaedists in Turkey, and what we now see in Iraq. Indeed, the liberal Europeans should love Israel, whose social and cultural institutions — universities, the fine arts, concern for the “other” — so reflect its own. Gays are in the Israeli military, whose soldiers rarely salute, but usually address each other by their first names and accept a gender equity that any feminist would love. And while Arabs once may have been exterminated by Syrians, gassed in Yemen by Egypt, ethnically cleansed in Kuwait, lynched without trial in Palestine, burned alive in Saudi Arabia, inside Israel proper they vote and enjoy human rights not found elsewhere in the Arab Middle East. When Europe frets over the “Right of Return” do they mean the over half-million Jews who were sent running for their lives from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq? Or do they ever ask why a million Arabs live freely in Israel and another 100,000 illegally have entered the “Zionist entity”? Does a European ever ask what would happen should thousands of Jews demand “A Right of Return” to Cairo? Instead, the elite Westerner talks about “occupied lands” from which Israel has been attacked four times in the last 60 years — in a manner that Germans do not talk about an occupied West they coughed up to France or an occupied East annexed by Poland. Russia lectures about Jenin, but rarely its grab of Japanese islands. Turkey is worried about the West Bank, but not its swallowing much of Cyprus. China weighs in about Palestinian sovereignty but not the entire culture of Tibet; some British aristocrats bemoan Sharon’s supposed land grab, but not Gibraltar. All these foreign territories that were acquired through blood and iron and held on to by reasons of “national security” are somehow different matters when Jews are not involved. Yet give Israel a population of 250 million, massive exports of oil and terrorists — and wipe away anti-Semitism — and even the Guardian or Le Monde would change its tune. Perhaps the most pathetic example of this strange nexus between first- and third-world Western bashing was seen in mid-December on television. Just as the United States government declared a high alert, one could watch a replay of the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy trashing America to a captivated, near-gleeful audience in New York. Her dog-and-pony show was followed by pathetic pleading from her nervous interrogator, Howard Zinn, not to transfer her unabashed hatred of the Bush administration to the United States in general. Mimicking the theatrics of American intellectuals — Roy’s hands frequently gestured scare quotes — she went from one smug denunciation to another to the applause of her crowd. Little was said about the crater a few blocks away, the social pathologies back home in India that send tens of thousands of its brightest to American shores, or Roy’s own aristocratic dress, ample jewelry, and studied accent. All the latter accoutrements and affectations illustrated the well-known game she plays of trashing globalization and corporatization as she jets around the Western world precisely through its largess — all the while cashing in by serving up an elegant third-world victimization to guilt-ridden Westerners. Is it weird that Western perks like tenure, jet-travel, media exposure, and affluence instill a hatred for the West, here and abroad? Or rather for a certain type of individual does such beneficence naturally explain the very pathology itself?