Please Put Victor Davis Hanson Out to Pasture. Wolfowitz, Too.

by Jim Lobe

I stopped reading neo-con and Dick Cheney favorite Victor Davis Hanson, “the Sage of Fresno”, after the Bush administration, largely because almost everything he wrote sounded exactly the same (cranky), and he offered no insight into what influential people were thinking. Instead, he simply repeated — in his own kind of world-weary, father-knows-best way — whatever the neo-con echo chamber was expounding on.

This week, however, I made an exception because his latest piece in The National Review, “Iran’s North Korean Future”, addressed an emerging neo-con meme designed to take full advantage of the ongoing crisis over North Korea. To wit, if you think a nuclear Pyongyang is bad, wait until Tehran goes nuclear. (Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which is trying to become for Iran what the American Enterprise Institute was for Iraq, wrote on the same topic in the Review on the same day.)

Hanson’s Review piece was subsequently published in the Washington Times and the Chicago Tribune and, to my despair, reprinted in the Early Bird edition of the Pentagon’s Current News. The central argument of the article is that a nuclear Iran would be far more dangerous than “other nuclear rogue states” such as Pakistan and North Korea. Why? Pakistan is deterred by a far larger and more powerful India, according to Hansen, while “North Korea can be “muzzled once its barking becomes too obnoxious” to China on whose patronage and support Pyongyang so clear depends. (Hansen also somewhat dubiously claims that Beijing “enjoys the angst that its subordinate causes its rivals.”)

Unlike Pakistan and North Korea, however, Iran has “no commensurate regional deterrent” that would constrain its behavior, according to Hanson. “If North Korea has been a danger, then a bigger, richer and undeterred nuclear Iran would be a nightmare,” he concludes.

Except that earlier in the same op-ed, Hansen notes that Iran would be most unlikely to attack Israel precisely because Israel’s nuclear arsenal is indeed a deterrent. Here’s the relevant passage:

Iran could copy Mr. Kim’s model endlessly — one week threatening to wipe Israel off the face of the map, the next backing down and complaining that problems in translation distorted the actual, less-bellicose communique. The point would not necessarily be to actually nuke Israel (which would translate into the end of Persian culture for a century), but to create such an atmosphere of worry and gloom over the Jewish state as to weaken the economy, encourage emigration and erode its geostrategic reputation.” [Emphasis added.]

So, even while insisting that Iran would not be deterable (because it doesn’t have a powerful next-door enemy like nuclear Pakistan has in India or a powerful patron like nuclear North Korea has in China) Hanson says in virtually the same breath that it is deterable. And this kind of analysis is rewarded by publication in the Current News!

Meanwhile, Paul Wolfowitz somewhat belatedly added his Iraq War retrospective, entitled (predictably) “Iraq: It’s Too Soon to Tell,” to the flurry of op-eds that came out at the end of March to mark the tenth anniversary of the invasion he fought so hard to realize.

Thankfully, it was not published in a U.S. medium beyond the AEI website but rather in the London-based Saudi daily, Asharq Al-Awsat. It appears primarily to be an (extremely lame) exercise in self-exculpation but is nonetheless well worth reading if for no other reason than he is probably the most high-ranking and influential policy-maker to offer an assessment on this occasion.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to go into specific details, but you will see some rather obvious problems in the recitation of the facts and logic.

One example: Saddam “also posed a more immediate danger [than his presumed plans to rebuild his WMD capabilities after sanctions were lifted] because terrorists, including Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, had already begun operating from Iraqi territory to plan terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East [at the time of the invasion].” If that is the definition of the kind of imminent threat that justifies a U.S. invasion, what other country in the region, leave aside Pakistan, would not qualify?

(Wolfowitz also seems to put a lot of the blame on former Secretary of State James Baker for allegedly failing to heed Saudi appeals for the U.S. to intervene on behalf of the Shi’a uprising against Saddam in southern Iraq after the first Gulf war.)

The closest he gets to expressing regret is the following passage.

There are many things that one could wish had been done differently in Iraq. Even supporters of the war can make a long list. My own list stars with the US decision to establish an occupation government instead of handing to sovereignty to Iraqis at the outset, and with the four-year delay in implementing a counter-insurgency strategy. It was already clear, soon after we got to Baghdad, that the enemy was pursuing an urban guerilla strategy — in order to prevent a new Iraqi government from succeeding and so that the US would give up and leave — and an appropriate counter-insurgency strategy should have been developed much sooner.

Notice the absence of self in this passage. It wasn’t Wolfowitz who was involved in these decisions; the implication is that he opposed them. It wasn’t even the administration of President George W. Bush in which he was the Deputy Secretary of Defense and an architect of the invasion. It was “the US” that made these decisions.

In fact, it was Wolfowitz who championed de-Baathification within the administration, a policy that, combined with the reigning insecurity and de facto dissolution of the Iraqi army, made an occupation necessary. Indeed, Wolfowitz’s whole argument about the occupation was demolished by none other than Dan Senor, the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), at a Hudson Institute Forum five years ago, as I noted in a blog post at the time.

As for Wolfowitz’s complaint about failure to implement a counter-insurgency strategy, he, of course, has no one to blame but himself. It was he who publicly ridiculed Gen. Eric Shinseki’s warnings about the size of the force that would be needed after the invasion, and it was he who failed to read the intelligence studies that predicted the emergence of an insurgency. That he tries now to somehow separate himself from these failures by referring to the “US” rather than to the specific decision-makers (including himself) responsible for these disasters reflects, in my opinion, a certain lack of moral integrity.

Now, to be fair, a pretty big chunk of the op-ed consists of an appeal for the Sunni-led Gulf Cooperational Council (GCC) countries to do more to support Iraq, whose government is dominated by Shi’a parties. And the fact that he is making that appeal in a Saudi newspaper strongly suggests that the op-ed was consciously written with that purpose foremost in mind. “…(T)he way to keep Iraq out of Iran’s embrace is by supporting Iraq’s new government, not by distancing oneself from it,” he wrote. “This isolation, not a love of Persians, is what has pushed Iraq too close to Iran.”

Still, given Wolfowitz’s heavy responsibility for what took place a decade ago and the series of disasters that befell Iraq while he was still in a key policy-making position — he didn’t leave until 2005 — his efforts at justifying the invasion without acknowledging his personal failures and offering advice appear unseemly at best.

Photo: Former President George W. Bush (right), former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (center) and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (left). DoD photo March 25, 2003 by R.D. Ward.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.