The Magazine

Defeat at Any Price

Why Petraeus's testimony was a nightmare for the Democrats.

Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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To prepare for General David Petraeus's long-awaited testimony on Iraq to Congress last week, the liberal pressure group MoveOn.org wrote itself into the history books with an anti-Petraeus ad so repulsive it ranked with Lyndon Johnson's infamous 1964 TV spot in the campaign against Barry Goldwater: A little girl picking flowers dissolved into a mushroom cloud, and then the screen went black. (Evidently by voting for Goldwater, you expressed your support for nuclear holocaust.) But gleeful Republicans who are certain that MoveOn has finally tipped its hand and shown America what the left is all about should remember that Johnson won that election, in a landslide. Because MoveOn headlined its ugly ad with an ugly rhyme ("General Betray Us"), it will stick in the public mind. But it is just possible that the public will invite MoveOn to take their ad and ShoveIt.

Democrats at the hearings themselves found it impossible to look this capable, thoughtful, distinguished man in the face and endorse the MoveOn ad. But don't get them wrong: Leading Dems had dumped on Petraeus often in the past, and were dumping furiously in preparation for the hearings. Petraeus is guilty of "carefully manipulating the statistics," Senator Dick Durbin announced; in fact the general has "made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual" (in strict contradistinction to Majority Leader Harry Reid), said Majority Leader Harry Reid. Barbara Boxer and Joe Biden plunged their knives in also.

The Democrats were scared for a reason. They worried that Petraeus would impress the country as dispassionate and serious--which he did. He called Bush's troop surge no unqualified success, said that much work remains--but that Iraq has turned a corner; has achieved tangible, important results in its fight against terrorism and inter-sect violence since the surge began. It was a Democratic nightmare.

America's ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, had the harder job of reporting on political progress. He said, too, that much work remained; Iraq's political health is bad in some ways, improving in others. But one fact towers above the rest like the ghost of the World Trade Center: If we stay put until the patient is stable, we face a tough job; if we panic and run, we face catastrophe.

Again this message was bad news for leading Democrats. But their reaction was just what it should've been, given that President Bush is the enemy--and, like the man said, politics ain't beanbag. Surely it's only natural for leading Democrats in Congress and the presidential campaign, and their vicious lap dogs on the web, to hope for the president's policies to fail.

Americans are so accustomed (or inured) to this attitude that they rarely step back and ask, What the hell is going on here?

The issue isn't tactics--doesn't concern the draw-down that the administration has forecast and General Petraeus has now discussed, or how this draw-down should work, or how specific such talk ought to be. The issue is deeper. It's time for Americans to ask some big questions. Do leading Democrats want America to win this war? Have they ever?

Of course not--and not because they are traitors. To leading Democrats such as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Al Gore and John Edwards, America would be better off if she lost. And this has been true from the start.

To rephrase the question: Why did Harry Reid announce months ago that the war was lost when it wasn't, and everyone knew it wasn't? The wish is father to the deed. He was envisioning the world of his dreams.

The Democrats' embrace of defeat is inspired by no base desire to see Americans killed or American resources wasted. But let's be honest about it, and invite the Democrats to be honest too.

Appeasement, pacifism, globalism: Those are the Big Three principles of the Democratic left. Each one has been defended by serious people; all are philosophically plausible, or at least arguable. But they are unpopular (especially the first two) with the U.S. public, and so the Democrats rarely make their views plain. We must infer their ideas from their (usually) guarded public statements.

Globalism and Euro-envy are explicit, sometimes, in Democratic pronouncements--about the sanctity of the United Nations, the importance of global conferences and "multilateralism" (except in cases like North Korea, where the president already is moving multilaterally), the superiority of the Canadian or German health care system, and so forth. The Democrats are not unpatriotic, but their patriotism is directed at a large abstract entity called The International Community or even (aping Bronze Age paganism) the Earth, not at America. Benjamin Disraeli anticipated this worldview long ago when he called Liberals the "Philosophical" and Conservatives the "National" party. Liberals are loyal to philosophical abstractions--and seek harmony with the French and Germans. Conservatives are loyal to their own nation, and seek harmony with its Founders and heroes and guiding principles.

The Democrats don't conceal their globalist ideas, but their appeasement and pacifism are positions they can only hint at.

So Democratic senator Dick Durbin had the effrontery to plead with the nation to pray for our Iraq wounded and please not to forget them--as if Republicans need Dick Durbin to remind them to honor our troops. When Democrats dwell on alleged analogies between Iraq and Vietnam, the message is clear. "Bring our troops home," says Harry Reid, and adds the incantation "responsibly"--which magically protects him from all charges of irresponsibility. ("Abolish the Constitution and sink the Navy--responsibly!") When MoveOn held a candlelight vigil over the summer to support Senate Democrats, the symbolism was plain. We light candles to remember the dead.

But if we only remember the dead and not the cause for which they died, we dishonor and make nonsense of the noblest of all sacrifices. And we mock a president who asked that "from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." That is the issue when Americans die in combat. Do we finish the mission and invest their deaths with meaning? Or do we shrug them off, inscribe their names on some sepulchral black wall in a ditch, and walk away?

Of course if our mission in Iraq were wrong or foolish or impossible, we would be right to abandon it. But recall that Americans have fought and died in Iraq to destroy a tyranny that was underwriting terrorism, threatening the peace of its region and the world--and torturing its own people to death. Americans died to put Iraq in the hands of a government that would terrorize neither its own people nor any other nor the world at large. Their mission was noble and right.

It is incomprehensible that the administration so rarely discusses the moral side of our achievement in Iraq. No doubt it's still impossible, in today's world, to launch a major war and depose a government merely for the sake of humanity, merely to rescue a people that is being torn apart and eaten alive by its rulers, merely on principle--although it is fair to wonder, 60-odd years after the Shoah, when it will be possible. But Americanism has long held that when we are forced to fight for our interests, we ought to fight for our principles too.

It's proving a harder fight than we anticipated. We've made serious mistakes along the way. Both statements apply to most American wars. The difference today is that some leading Americans would prefer defeat to victory.

Compare today's war in Iraq with the American fight to clear the Japanese out of Guadalcanal, from September 1942 through early February '43. Obviously that was a vastly shorter stretch than our time in Iraq--but losses in the South Pacific were incomparably greater. Imagine Harry Reid's reaction to news like this: During our first landings, four Allied heavy cruisers (three American) were sunk and a fifth chased away in a battle lasting 32 minutes; nearly 1,300 Americans died. (Multicultural enthusiasts who teach our children that white men are the bane of the earth should explain why Guadalcanal's native Melanesians "were uniformly hostile to the Japanese," according to Samuel Eliot Morison, "and friendly to the Allies.")

At the start of the Guadalcanal fighting, 1,600 American Marines and GIs died on the ground in a single month. Morison writes that "mid-October marked the nadir of misery" for Americans on that rank and lethal island. But one of the most notorious episodes of the war was still to come: In November the Japanese sank the U.S. cruiser Juneau. Six hundred men drowned; another 100 clung to the wreckage--of whom 90 were eaten by sharks or went mad in the open sea without food, water, or shelter and then drowned alongside their crewmates. The 690 deaths in this one crew included the famous five Sullivan brothers.

By the start of February nearly all Japanese troops on the island had been killed, but the rest fought desperately and brutally, as they had from the start; every Japanese soldier was (in effect) a suicide bomber who preferred death to surrender. Guadalcanal was secured at last on February 9.

You might argue that World War II has nothing to do with Iraq; after all, the Japanese started the fight by attacking our fleet at Pearl Harbor. But even the Japanese never succeeded in slaughtering civilians on the U.S. mainland. And those who think that our war in Iraq has nothing to do with the 9/11 murderers, or their friends whose ultimate target is America, are living in Fantasyland.

People like to write nowadays about the courage and resolution of our troops in World War II--praise that is richly deserved. But the facts suggest that our men on the front lines in Iraq today are just as brave and resolute as our World War II troops. ("Men" meaning "males"; Army regulation AR 600-13 of 1994, confirmed by the Department of Defense, bars women from combat in ground warfare--although women can, of course, be exposed to danger and capture in staff and support jobs, to our national disgrace. Then again, why worry? Doubtless no enemy so religious, so very pious that he is willing to slaughter soldiers and civilians at random in exchange for a generous allotment of virgins in heaven, could possibly contemplate molesting a captive American female.) Victory in World War II required brave soldiers--and civilians who backed them up with a different sort of bravery, vastly easier to achieve but just as crucial in its way. It's not our soldiers (Lord knows) who have turned coward in this war; it's we who have turned defeatist. We civilians--or at any rate the Democratic leaders among us.

If you believe in appeasement, defeat in Iraq would show that we were wrong to stop talking and start fighting. If you believe in pacifism, defeat would demonstrate that war is futile even if your motives are good. If you believe in globalism, defeat would suggest that we should have acted strictly in concert with world opinion. In short, if you do believe in appeasement, pacifism, globalism (and many leading Democrats do), your wish for defeat is no evil or traitorous urge. It is merely logical.

It also, of course, contradicts traditional Americanism right down to the ground. Americanism is the set of beliefs that has always held this country together in its large embrace. Americanism calls for liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind. And it urges this nation to promote the American Creed wherever and whenever it can--to be the shining city on a hill, the "last, best hope of earth." Ultimately, Americanism is derived from the Bible. The Bible itself has been a grand unifying force in American society, uniting Christians of many creeds from Eastern Orthodox to Unitarian, and Jews, and Bible-respecting deists like Thomas Jefferson--and many others who respect and honor the Bible whatever their own religious beliefs.

Pacifist globalism is radically at odds with Americanism. Where did this new creed come from, and where is it headed?

It was imported from Europe, where it originated during and after World War I. It hibernated in America until Vietnam--America's very own First World War, according to the left: a futile bloodbath. Reagan and, later, the Gulf war sent this European creed into hibernation once again. But Iraq is the left's chance to convert large numbers of Americans from Americanism to Euro-style pacifist globalism. If the balance should tip--if a majority or even a large minority of Americans should abandon Americanism--that would be a cultural watershed.

And it would mark the start of America's decline just as surely as World War I and its consequences marked the start of Europe's.

How did pacifist globalism, grossly unpopular in the Western world before the First World War, rise to a dominant position in contemporary Europe--and then come to threaten Americanism on our own shores?

World War I barely exists in American memory. When Americans think about it at all, they are apt to picture a violently buffoonish comic opera with men dying by the million. Which is partly true: On the western front, where Germany grappled with the Allies (led by France, Britain, and later America), the war was indeed fought with murderous irresponsibility on both sides. The nearly incomprehensible destruction (60,000 British casualties at the Somme--on the first day) has obscured the fact that Britain entered this war for almost exactly the same reason she entered World War II. Germany had smashed, splintered, and slaughtered her way into a small neighboring state that Britain had promised to protect: Belgium in World War I, Poland in World War II.

The cause was right, but the casualties were so enormous, they turned European thinking back on itself (like bending a steel beam in two, or making a U-turn in an aircraft carrier)--and it's no wonder. Pacifist globalism was a natural response to unspeakable war casualties, just as disabling mental illness was a natural response to awful childhood trauma in the Freudian worldview that once dominated Western thinking.

Pacifist globalism has nearly always been popular with intellectuals. But in 1920s and '30s Britain, it suddenly became the creed of the nation--and of Conservative prime ministers with large majorities in the House of Commons: of Stanley Baldwin (said by a colleague to be "for peace at any price") and Neville Chamberlain, his chosen successor. "Many and varied were the suggestions made" on behalf of pacifism, wrote Malcolm Muggeridge; "many and varied the enterprises launched, great the expenditure of energy and passion, enormous the area of paper covered, heartfelt the vows taken, undeniably sincere the words spoken." (Muggeridge notes that "postcards were dispatched to addresses chosen at random from German directories, stating that the writers of them were resolved in all circumstances to practice non-resistance, surprise being expressed that these communications were duly delivered.") Globalism expressed itself, meanwhile, in earnest dedication to the League of Nations--an institution that proved itself even more useless than the United Nations. An impressive feat.

Pacifist globalism was so popular it lost World War II for the tragically underprepared French and nearly lost it for the British. The British pulled themselves together and made a heroic stand, but the French will never live down (least of all in their own minds) the humiliation of being overrun by German armor in a matter of weeks; of choosing not even to defend their beloved capital city. Poland put up a stiffer fight than France in the Second World War.

America proved immune to pacifist globalism, until Vietnam. The Vietnam war was nothing like World War I, despite the implicit analogies that emerged later. At first it was run badly, but when General Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as supreme American commander in May 1968, our strategy changed dramatically. With Abrams in charge the war "was being won on the ground," wrote the historian Lewis Sorley, "even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress." Americans continued to support the war effort nearly until the end. The 1972 presidential election was a referendum on Vietnam; "Come home, America!" preached the antiwar Democrat George McGovern--and lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Of all U.S. population segments, 18- to 24-year-old men--who were subject to the draft and manned the front lines--were consistently the war's strongest supporters. "It was not the American people which lost its stomach," wrote the British historian Paul Johnson, "it was the American leadership."

But intellectuals succeeded in squeezing Vietnam into the dreaded iron maiden of World War I. They succeeded in smearing it, in other words, as a futile, pointless massacre. The results were inevitable. In the 1970s, Americanism was in danger for the first time since the Civil War. Americans, who had always seen the distinction between just and unjust wars, were in peril of contracting the moral blindness called pacifism--and of laying in stocks of the ever-popular snake oil called globalism.

Ronald Reagan turned things around. He brought Americanism back; he repeated what John Winthrop had written in 1630 about America, the shining city on a hill. Americanism had weathered its greatest crisis since 1861. Or so it seemed.

But Iraq has made everything fresh and new for the Democratic leadership. If it can paint Iraq as another Vietnam and relive its great triumphs of the 1970s, the damage done to the American psyche might be permanent. Americans might stop believing in liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind and retreat to the revised European version: liberty, equality, and democracy (of a sort)--for us. Instead of believing Lincoln's words--"with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in"--Americans might become self-satisfied and complacent pseudo-Europeans. Hollow men. Without Americanism, America joins the European robot republics that have no spiritual life and don't even miss it.

But it's also possible that the Democratic leadership's wish for American defeat in Iraq will make it clear to this nation (to conservatives and liberals) that today's Democratic party is no longer a responsible party of government--at least at the national level where America's security, vision, and honor are at stake.

Possibly "New Democrats" à la Tony Blair will rally round such lonely voices as Joe Lieberman's--but remember that New Labour fought its way out of the political womb and all the way to Number 10 only because of the Tories' ongoing nervous breakdown. More likely, America's political spectrum a decade or more in the future will be defined by two parties both born of today's GOP after a natural and painless mitosis. There's at least as much distance between a Rudy Giuliani and a Mike Huckabee as there ever was between JFK and Nixon, or even Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. Americans traditionally like their two opposing parties to differ on domestic affairs but agree on basic foreign policy--not because things are nicer that way; rather because foreign-policy arguments are good for our enemies, bad for our friends, and hugely dangerous to ourselves--especially in an age when swarms of maniac, murderous jihadists blacken the Middle East like toxic locusts.

Listen to what the Democrats are really saying. Consider what they actually want. And pray God they never get it.

David Gelernter is a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and the author most recently of Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.