Friday, October 21, 2005

It may be news to certain senators, but the U.S. always discovers larger, nobler causes in the midst of battle

By David Gelernter |

This week should have been a time of rejoicing in America. On Wednesday, Saddam Hussein went on trial — the ex-master butcher of Iraq, reeking of blood. And last Saturday, the newly freed Iraqi people pulled off a referendum right under the noses of terrorists whose heart’s desire is to blow democracy to bits. The United States — the armed forces especially, and the Bush administration's leadership — is largely responsible for both these amazing developments. Obviously Iraq is still in deadly danger. But if these two events don't call for congratulations, what kind of world events would?

Yet up on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been called before a Senate committee. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was one of those who questioned her. Boxer was obnoxious and frightening.

She made reference to the Holocaust, offensively. More important, she demonstrated that she doesn't know U.S. history, and she implied that the American people don't either. And she raised an alarming question about contemporary politics. We often hear from Democrats that President Bush's policy in Iraq makes no sense. But how can it make sense to the Barbara Boxers of Congress if they can't understand the explanation?

Rice was defending the administration's conduct of the war when Boxer objected. The administration, Boxer noted (correctly), has changed focus on Iraq. We went to war mainly on account of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, she said. But WMD turned out to be a hoax on the whole world, and nowadays we are told that our Iraq mission is gigantic. We plan for a freed Iraq to inspire and stabilize the entire Middle East and to promote democracy everywhere. What kind of bait-and-switch is the administration playing with the American people?

Rice answered that this is the way the world works. For example, we did not go into World War II to build a democratic Germany…. Here Boxer interrupted. World War II, she told Rice curtly, has nothing to do with Iraq. Boxer had lost relatives in the Holocaust. No one had to tell her about World War II.

But Rice's analogy was exactly right. And by the way, using the Holocaust as a bat to beat political enemies over the head is demeaning to Jews and to human dignity. Having lost relatives in the Holocaust does not, in any case, confer expertise in U.S. history.

Democracies rarely declare war to improve the world, as Rice could have explained had she had the chance. They fight to protect themselves, sometimes to fulfill treaty obligations. But once a war is underway, free peoples tend to think things over deeply. Casualties concentrate the mind. We refuse to let our soldiers die for too little. America at war has lifted its sights again and again from danger, self-interest and self-defense to a larger, nobler goal. Same story, war after war. Iraq fits perfectly.

At first, Colonial America made war on Britain to loosen the British grip on commerce and society, not to create an independent state. Only as the war dragged on and costs and casualties mounted did public opinion swing round toward independence. In 1861, the North reluctantly made war on the Confederacy to hold the Union together. President Lincoln was painfully aware that, at the start of the fighting, freedom for the slaves would not have commanded popular support as a cause for war. Only later, as casualties mounted and blood ran in rivers, did freeing the slaves become the Union's ultimate goal.

We marched into World War I behind an idealistic war message from President Wilson to Congress. But the U.S. was in a fighting mood because of Germany's threat to sink unarmed American merchant ships and a German secret message (intercepted by Britain) offering Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico if it joined Germany against the U.S. Only later did self-determination in Europe and the creation of a League of Nations become American war goals.

Which brings us to World War II. And, of course, Rice is dead right: Once the war was over, we spent years cultivating democracy in Japan and Germany. But we entered the war because Japan attacked us and, four days later, Adolf Hitler declared war on us.

What do we conclude when the secretary of State makes a plain statement of historical fact and a senator won't listen? That it is only natural for demagogues to attack thoughtful, polite officials who are trying hard to tell straight truths about a complicated war. The Boxers of this world ought to be met with single-minded slogans, but no doubt Rice can't see why she should stoop that low.

Americans who don't know history are the demagogue's natural prey. Boxer's statements assume that Americans at large know as little about history as she does. Let's hope it's not true.

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