The Long View 2004-05-14: Panic; Civil War; Gardening Accidents

The beheading of Nick Berg was so shocking at the time. Now this kind of thing seems to happen all the time. Or at least it gets reported on all the time, which for purposes of mental impact is more important.

Unfortunately for John, he made a number of predictions about this time in 2004 that Iraq was going to turn the corner any day now, and victory would ensue. Hah.


Panic; Civil War; Gardening Accidents

When the images from Abu Ghraib first appeared, it was hard to imagine a set of pictures that might have made the media talk about something else for a while. I'm not sure that a video of Godzilla rising from Tokyo Bay would have done the trick. Then the Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq decided to decapitate Nicholas Berg online. That might have turned into just another atrocity story, except that we soon learned that Berg's father and business partner was a vociferous opponent of the war, and that the victim himself had apparently had some contact, however innocent, with 911 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. All this leads to an inevitable speculation: is this a case in which a family of American progressives was trying to make contact with anti-colonial freedom-fighters, only to discover that the insurgents were not such good comrades after all? We will find out by and by.

* * *

Meanwhile, it is instructive to read the first few sentences of the lead editorial in The Weekly Standard of May 17. The piece was, of course, probably written last week; it shows official Washington in full rout:

We do not know how close the American effort in Iraq may be to irrecoverable failure. We are inclined to believe, however, that the current Washington wisdom -- that the United States has already failed and there is nothing to do now but find a not-too-damaging way to extricate ourselves -- is far too pessimistic, a panicked reaction to the difficulties in Falluja and with Moktada al-Sadr, was well as with the disaster of Abu Ghraib.

I am reminded of nothing so much as the behavior in officials circles in London during the Germans' Spring Offensive in 1918, when it seemed as if the Allies faced defeat in the field. Prime Minister Lloyd George himself was heard to mutter, "We're going to lose this war." A preemptive exchange of recriminations began among the high and mighty. Parliament, which really did have better things to do, started investigating who knew what, and when, about the state of the Army in France in January. That had nothing to do with meeting the crisis, but the debate created a record that might have helped to salvage some careers after a lost war.

As it happened, all this weasel-work proved unnecessary. The Allied command was not nearly as incompetent as its critics made out, then and later. More important, the Germans found that they could make tactical successes, but did not have the resources to exploit them strategically. Much the same seems to be true of the insurgency in Iraq. That's as true politically as it is militarily. The Coalition lost moral credit because of the prison scandal, but the Berg execution ensured that the occupation will remain the lesser of two evils in Iraqi eyes for some time to come.

At the risk of making an easily falsifiable forecast, I believe that Iraq will be so visibly on the road to recovery by the time of the political conventions this summer that the Democrats will fold the issue into a general critique of Bush's fiscal and diplomatic policies. Actually, they are the real hostages to fortune on this issue.

I recently heard Joseph Wilson being interviewed on NPR. He's the former ambassador to Iraq who has just published yet another anti-Bush memoir; the title escapes me. He shocked the interviewer by remarking that, of course the Baathist regime in Iraq had WMDs; he fully expected some caches to be found sooner or later. He went on to observe, not unreasonably, that the stuff that is likely to be found did not pose a grave threat to the well-being of the United States.

If you parse the Administration's explanations for the war, you will see that the justification was always what Baathist government might have in the future, not what they had already. However, the Administration did speak as if the discovery of a modest stock of nerve gas would by itself justify the war. The Democrats unthinkingly bought this interpretation; they were as surprised as anyone when no stocks were found, and the conflation of present capability with long-range strategic threat turned to their advantage.

If Wilson is right, and some unambiguous WMD material is found, the confusion will again favor the Administration.

* * *

There is more to history than electoral politics. Consider, for instance, this Minnesota Daily column by John Troyer, entitled Get ready for a second U.S. civil war.

Troyer talks about a shooting civil war, which seems to me unlikely. However, it is reasonably clear that the Culture War will issue in some such historical disjuncture as Michael Lind forecast in The Next American Nation. The problem with people like Lind and Troyer is that they never appreciate that the aggressor in this matter has always been the cultural Left. For instance: theocrats did not make gay marriage a national issue; the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts did. From the question of prayer in public schools to the constitutionalization of sodomy, the fight has always been started by implacable progressive elites.

This actually bodes ill for their side, if history is any guide. The 19th-century Civil War was not started by Abolitionists; it was started by pro-slavery ideologues on the US Supreme Court, who used the Dred Scot decision to nullify the compromises about slavery that Congress had created over the previous 20 years. The issue would not have come to a head at all if slave-owners had not insisted on expanding the institution of slavery into the new territories.

The cultural Left will fail in the 21st century, too, just as the Jihad will fail. In defeating these threats, the United States will again be transformed

* * *

In the months before 911, few members of the commentariat displayed any interest in the question of a terrorist attack in the United States. One of the great exceptions was Peggy Noonan, one of whose columns I quoted here. Well, she's doing it again, this time in her May 13 column for Opinion Journal, entitled Bada Bing? Bada Boom.

The title comes from the HBO television show, The Sopranos: it's the favorite expression of the show's mobster hero, Tony. (Or so I gather; I know the series only by reputation.) Noonan explains that she shares Tony's anxiety about the security of Port Newark, which is just a few miles east of Manhattan and part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She has some provocative observations about how God is about to punish New Jersey for promoting research into human cloning, and for the apostasy from the Catholic Church of several of its leading politicians. She concludes thus:

Here's the point: Bad things are coming, and we all know it. But most of us can't afford to buy a farm in the Hudson River Valley. Most of us can't afford to buy the safety of being far, far away on a lake in the mists. Many of us are stuck living near Port Newark.

What are we to do? This is the great domestic policy question of our time. Why doesn't our government provide us all with the means to survive an expected nuclear, biological or chemical attack? Why doesn't our government provide us with what I think of as a "get out of Dodge" kit--a protective suit, a regulation gas mask, information on which direction to walk in, or rather run in, and how soon, after Port Newark, or Times Square, or the Sears Tower, or the Shrine Auditorium, is hit? Why aren't they doing this?

On 911, here in Jersey City, it was clear that the police and the emergency services had some plans in case of a disaster across the Hudson River in Manhattan, but the implementation was not seamless. Hysterical policemen sometimes made matters worse. Maybe what we need is a system of civil-defense volunteers, like the people who used to patrol the streets in air-raid drills during the Second World War. Certainly this is the sort of thing toward which block associations and gated communities should be turning their attention.

* * *

I note with great interest that archeologists are working on a mysterious artifact in Shugborough, which is in the UK in Staffordshire:

The inscription is rumoured to indicate the location of the Holy Grail, which must rank as one of the world's great mysteries.

The mystery deepens further when we learn that inscription is on an ancient garden ornament. My first thought was: could this ornament have had anything to do with the bizarre gardening accident in which one of Spinal Tapp's drummers perished? Then I found this.

That will teach me not to ask these questions. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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