Learning to Like America Even If You Can’t Love It

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Appeasement defined the global conflicts of the 20th century. Time after time, America and other forces for freedom and democracy withheld their power in efforts to appease the most evil regimes in recent history. Over and over again, the policy of appeasement has ended in disaster. Now, conservative giant Victor Davis Hanson asks: why is appeasement so seductive and where will it take us in the 21st century?

In this collection of Hanson’s best columns from the last four years on the policy of appeasement today and in history, the path becomes clear. If America continues down the road of appeasement with radical Islamic groups and aggressive regimes in Russia and North Korea, the world will see a conflagration rivalling World War II.

A copy of the book can be purchased here.

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I would begin this particular tidbit of self-exploration with a confession; as an observer of both Democrat and Republican antics in Washington -- particularly through the period beginning in 2001 -- and the madness which seems to have gripped the rest of the world through that time, I’ve grown tired. Reflecting on only that first sentence, perhaps tired isn’t a suitable description; I’ve grown despondent. The struggle to understand the events of the world and, at least in some small way, to influence them is enough to send the most self-righteous off to their rooms for a nap some days. But through it all I have been generally confident that America would survive and even thrive. It’s the voice of my father, himself a member of the greatest generation and a warrior in George S. Patton’s Third Army, whispering in my ear.

But watching events unfold today, it’s not always easy to maintain any sort of sunny disposition. The shift from a Republican-held White House to a Democrat one over the last fifteen years hasn’t offered much in the way of fuel for optimism. I wasn’t a fan of George W. Bush, being more than a little uncomfortable with his big spending policies and opposing the invasion of Iraq. Of course, when the time came to replace him things didn’t seem much better. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama, who seemed little more than an empty suit, but his opponent didn’t inspire a great deal more confidence. One thing I knew, however, was that I was tired of war. If nothing else, Obama would probably deliver on that.

How wrong can one person be? If anything, the world has devolved further and faster under the current president than it did under his predecessor. I had occasion to reflect on this -- and perhaps gain a bit more traction in my understanding of this particular arc of global history -- when I recently had the chance to read Victor Davis Hanson’s new book, Seductions of Appeasement. In it, he provides a collection of his essays from the past few years which catalog the failures of recent American leadership and how a vacuum in the halls of the leader of the free world seems to continually thwart us in our efforts. We have been unable to leverage our position as a global leader and make any sustainable gains in the stabilization of an increasingly fractured world.

The introduction to the book contains some hints of the detailed analysis to follow, and this one in particular resonated with me.

Because Obama did not accept that the failure of the Middle East was largely self-induced and a result of ubiquitous tribalism, statism, autocracy, misogyny, and religious intolerance inspired by radical Islam, he could hardly see the solution to these problems in introspection and self-induced reformation by the nations and peoples of the Middle East. Of the old question, “Do they hate us for who we are or because of what we do?”, Obama clearly would answer in the affirmative to the latter question: change our behavior and America would once again be respected and liked—the problem is us, not them. What followed was the al Arabiya interview, the Cairo Speech, the so-called apology tour, the ostracism of Prime Minister Netanyahu, a series of administration assurances that jihad was a legitimate tenet of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood largely secular, NASA’s new prime mission as outreach to the Muslim World, and a string of euphemisms for the excesses of radical Islam. The result: increased chaos and violence in the Middle East along with rampant anti-Americanism.

Hanson and I don’t agree on everything. In fact, when it comes to foreign policy, that’s likely a gross understatement. And yet the experience of watching our global leadership decay since 2008 and our national security suffer as a result has led me to rethink at least some of my previous, more isolationist views. Hanson’s book offers a crash course in such objective, if depressing analysis. If there is a single factor which demonstrates precisely how far out of tune some of my own calculations had been, it’s ISIS. In the past year I have been forced to confront the failures in my own vision when I found myself publishing calls for the United States to return to Iraq in force and confront this menace.

One area of the author’s observations in particular has held up a mirror to the rather bitter pill I’ve seen myself swallow when reconsidering my earlier assumptions on Iraq. We may have broken a great number of eggs in removing Saddam Hussein, but we clearly owed it to ourselves, every bit as much as to the Iraqis, to stick around and at least make an attempt to finish cooking the omelet. This breakdown in planning has been reflected in our political battles in Washington fully as much as the bloody, physical battles we’ve endured on the sands of foreign lands. The president has managed to cast more blame at home on the opposing party than either the resident evil of our enemies abroad or the failures of his own policies. This is demonstrated in one of the first essays in Hanson’s book.

Imagine if Obama declaimed of the Iranians in Tehran that “those aren’t the kinds of folks who represent our core American values,” in the manner he once attacked John McCain for calling for border security in 2008. Could not a worldly Obama at least go after the intolerant Saudis for spreading Wahhabi-hatred worldwide and for sending subsidies to radical Sunni terrorists, in the detailed way he once deconstructed rural conservative voters of Pennsylvania? He might have taken apart these dogmatic religious absolutists in the following manner: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” All such invective seems to sum up current Saudi society far better than it does the people of Pennsylvania. Could not the president finish by noting that their madrassas encourage divisions and discourage cooperation, just as he boldly lectured an Irish audience about the problems with Catholic parochial schools?

Seductions of Appeasement contains critical analysis delivered in digestible bites on all the major foreign policy quagmires which currently seem to paralyze the Obama administration. What, if anything, to do about Syria is detailed in multiple chapters. The continual thorn in our national side represented by Iran is examined in detail, offering possibilities of how an abrupt change in policy might still snatch victory from the jaws of willfully blind defeat. Hanson even goes into our failure to handle wrenching situations such as the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for the Taliban Five. (Coincidentally, the worst possible name for a boy band on record, in case you were considering using it.)

But no such examination is worth its salt unless there are some lessons learned. For Obama, it might be Hanson’s reflections on how the world has a way of moving at its own pace when left unattended. Even if war didn’t interest Barack Obama, it certainly was interested in him.

One of Obama’s talking points in the 2012 campaign included a boast that he had “ended” the war in Iraq by bringing home every U.S. soldier that had been left to ensure the relative quiet and stability after the successful Petraeus surge. In the world of Obama, a war can be declared ended because he said so, given that no Americans were any longer directly involved. (Remind the ghosts of the recently beheaded in now al Qaeda-held Mosul that the war ended there in 2011.)

Iraq is in flames, as is “lead from behind” Libya, as is “red line” Syria, and as are those places where an al Qaeda “on the run” has migrated. Had Obama been commander in chief in 1940, he would have assured us that the wars in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France were “over” — as they were in a sense for those who lost them, but as they were not for those next in line.

In fairness, I couldn’t simply offer lessons for the president from this book without admitting to gleaning a few for myself. I’m not here to say that every single stance taken by Victor Davis Hanson should be read as gospel, but he’s clearly learned a great deal from watching the march of history and this should be required reading for anyone with a mind to vote. Those of us hoping to influence the future course of the country might be able to absorb some wisdom here. For me, I understand that it was always easy to love America. Some of the Republicans’ chief foes on the home front might struggle with that a bit more when we find ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to Lead From the Front against our enemies in the Islamic world. But in the end, we only have each other to rely upon and we’ve learned that there are forces in motion that clearly have no interest in an olive branch.

It is, no doubt, better to love America. But watching the events now unfolding in the global theater, even if you can’t manage to love her you need to at least like her. She’s the only friend you have.

This blog post is part of PJ Media's Appeasement Week, a series of blog posts celebrating the launch of Victor Davis Hanson's new e-book, The Seductions of Appeasement. Buy it now on the PJ Store, and get 50% until June 30! Click here to read.