Victor Davis Hanson: Back to the Future in the Middle East

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Victor Davis Hanson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University , a professor emeritus at California University , Fresno , and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services.]

If Gen. David Petraeus can't stabilize Iraq by autumn — or if Americans decide to pull out of Iraq before he gets a fair chance — expect far worse chaos eventually to follow. We will see ethnic cleansing, mass murder of Iraqi reformers, Kurdistan threatened, emerging Turkish-, Iranian-, and Wahhabi-controlled rump states, and al Qaeda emboldened as American military prestige is ruined.

And then what new American Middle East policy would arise from the ashes of Iraq?

Past presidents and statesmen as diverse as Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Brent Scowcroft have weighed in with various remedies to our supposed blunders in the Middle East since September 11.

Apparently, Americans are supposed to forget these supposedly brilliant strategists' dismal records of dealing with Middle East terrorism, Islamic radicalism and murderous dictators. However, their three decades of bipartisan failure helped bring us to the present post-9/11 world.

So, before the United States abandons its present policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should at least recall the past record — which may be best summed up as the ying of Democratic appeasement and the yang of Republican cynicism.

Jimmy Carter now writes books damning our present policies. He should keep quiet. When the Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran and inaugurated this era of Islamic terrorism, his U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, announced that the murderous Ayatollah Khomeini was "a 20th century saint." Moralist Carter himself also tried to send hardcore leftist Ramsey Clark over to Tehran to beg the mullahs to release the hostages — in exchange for arms sales.

Next came Ronald Reagan, who, to put it kindly, was bewildered by Islamic extremism. He pulled out American troops from Lebanon after Hezbollah murdered 241 marines and thereby helped to energize a new terrorist movement that has spread havoc ever since.

The Lebanon retreat was followed by the disgrace of the Iran-Contra affair, when American agents sold the hostage-taking theocracy missiles and then used the receipts illegally to fund the Contras. Few now remember that Oliver North purportedly flew to Iran to seal the deal, bearing gifts for the ayatollah. No need to mention the intelligence the Reagan administration gave to Saddam Hussein during the savage Iran-Iraq war, or the way it continued Carter's policy of arming jihadists in Afghanistan.

There were just as many cynical realists in George Bush Sr.'s foreign policy team. In the debate leading up to the first Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker justified attacking oil-rich Saddam Hussein for the sake of "jobs, jobs, jobs." And when our coalition partner, the even oil-richer House of Saud, objected to removing the murderous Hussein regime after its retreat from Kuwait, we complied — to the point of watching Saddam butcher thousands of Kurds and Shiites.

Bill Clinton also often weighs in with ideas on the Middle East. But during his two terms he passed up an offer from Sudan to hand over bin Laden. Shortly afterwards, the terrorist openly threatened us: "To kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim."

The Clinton administration also didn't do much about eight years of serial terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, American servicemen in Saudi Arabia, the East African embassies or the USS Cole. The $50 billion U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal did not reflect well on Clinton's multilateral model of dealing with Saddam Hussein....

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Stephen Kislock - 8/6/2007

Why is it when the Oppressed (Iraqi's and Palestinians)fight the Aggressor Nations (US and Israel) it's Terrorism?

The Iraqis do not have Water for drinking and No Electricty and it's a 130 degress. Hanson, must think this is good?

Randll Reese Besch - 8/5/2007

I concure,what is the point of this history lesson? The point I see is that the empire of the USA is no better than any other. Check the Russian and UK machimations in the Middle East this past two centuries for similar boondoggles and bloodshed. The fact that Carter has something to say may be too much for Hanson,see reference to the 1st Amendment while it is still active. This article seemed incomplete. As if the point was left off. Proofreaders are needed more now than ever.

John Richard Clark - 8/5/2007

When I read about the war on terror, I feel I am in a time warp in which 1967 is partially superimposed over 2007.

Hanson sounds like some of the 1960s hawks in the Johnson administration who predicted the same dire consequences if the US pulled out of Vietnam.

Why not use the analogy of a set of dominoes lined up in the Middle East, Professor Hanson?

James W Loewen - 8/3/2007

So, in the Middle East, they're ALL a bunch of jerks -- Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton... (hm, didn't notice Bush II on the list, but maybe that's because his failure in the Middle East is SO apparent). There is some truth to this, although the author's critique is scattered, but what's his point? What does he recommend? That we stay there, making wonderful targets, forever? Has he not read the polls in Iraq? Surely he knows that they hate us MORE every day, for the understandable reason that every day we look more like permanent occupiers. His analysis stops at the point where it should start.