Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Will and vision: where is our Churchill?

Here's a hard-hitting article to mull over before listening to tonight's State of the Union address. The author, J. Peter Mulhern, may be unduly pessimistic, but he's certainly profoundly skeptical about both sides of the fence in American politics today, and I believe his skepticism is mostly warranted, unfortunately.

About the Democrats, Mulhern writes:

Democrats are gearing up to make a lot of noise in support of ignominious withdrawal from Iraq before gracelessly accepting the inevitable reality that the Commander in Chief calls the shots in wartime. This way they hope to appease their defeatist constituency without having to take the fall for yet another surrender and the blood bath that would certainly ensue.

And Republicans fare hardly any better; Mulhern points out that they are ignoring the wider scope of the enemy we are fighting (Iran, Syria) and pretending that we can fight Iraq successfully without facing the huge role other countries play in the region. He writes:

The surreal debate about Iraq is a thin veil covering the real political preoccupation of our time - the competition to assign blame for the next terrorist attack to somebody else. Democrats are setting themselves up to argue that the Republican administration is at fault because it hasn't been diligent enough about homeland security and because it has fanned the flames of Islamofascism by fighting in Iraq. Republicans are setting themselves up to argue that Democrats are at fault for refusing to take militant Islam seriously and working to frustrate our every effort to confront it....[O]ur entire political class has been indulging itself in meaningless partisan disputes when it should have been teaching our Arab and Persian enemies a bitter lesson about the consequences of messing with the eagle.

I disagree with him somewhat in that I think that if we had fought the post-Iraq War occupation(and been unashamed to call it that, by the way) with greater clarity and firmness--shooting looters, stopping Sadr, securing borders--we already would have sent the requisite message to "our Arab and Persian enemies" about the consequences of "messing" with the US

But that opportunity is gone. We can't go back to those days, we can only go forward. That's why I think the current stance of almost all Democrats in Congress (and, yes indeed, some Republicans) sends a terrible message to our enemies.

What is that message? That we lack the will to see anything difficult through. Just wait it out. After Bush, the deluge.

And "after Bush" will arrive in only two rather hamstrung and seemingly short years. The enemy is banking on his successor being less determined to fight them. The mullahs don't lack determination, however; they've been waiting since 1979 for their opportunity to fatally undermine the US and the West, probably longer. Some have waited since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922--whether or not they were actually alive at that time.

Mulhern ends his essay with a question: Where is our Churchill?

He's not just expressing the desire for a leader of more eloquence. He's referring to the fact that Churchill spent the decade of the 30s (the era that seems to most resemble our present one) warning his country against the scope and nature of the peril they faced and ultimately could not avoid. He was ridiculed at the time, but when subsequent events proved him right, he was the obvious choice for Britain's leader.

We don't seem to have a similar political figure. I can't think of anyone in government who's been warning us to prepare on a big enough scale. Perhaps such a person will arise to fit the occasion, if the occasion does arise (and I sincerely hope it does not). Or perhaps that person is here already, and just hasn't gotten the publicity and coverage enough for us to know who he/she might be.

Churchill was eloquent, yes, and he saw the nature of the enemy clearly and early. But to me perhaps his most important and consistent message to the British people was one of patience, fortitude, and will in the face of the terrible and lengthy struggle ahead. In speaking to them, he spoke to the world, and let it--enemies and allies alike--know that Britain's will was indominable, its people unified, its patience almost infinite. And it was so in part because Churchill willed it to be so, and set the example in his own person.

Read, for example, this speech of Churchill's after Dunkirk in 1940, one of the lowest times for the Allies in the war, a year and a half before the US even entered it. The situation was far, far more grim than any we face today (including the possibility of the capitulation of most of Europe, and an imminent Nazi invasion of Britain itself). Of course, in a way, the extreme direness of the situation made things clear; Churchill no longer had to try to persuade the people about the dreadfulness of the enemy, as he had for so many years. No one was mocking him now; Germany itself had made believers out of them.

In his post-Dunkirk speech, Churchill did not whitewash the picture. Perhaps if you read it today things don't seem quite so dreadful because, after all, we have the supreme advantage of knowing how it all turned out. But at the time the future was unknown--as it always is--and Churchill led a nation that could easily have given up, considering what it faced.

This is the genius of Churchill [emphasis mine]:

[W]e shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty's Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Note the end of the speech--the reliance on the help of the United States, and the sure knowledge that it would be forthcoming because we would inevitably be drawn into the battle.

Today we face no Dunkirk; no need to evacuate against a superior enemy bent on conquering us. And yet we are acting as though a Dunkirk-like evacuation is the only option left. The situation, as I said, is more analogous to the 30s, when Europe faced a threat that it could have more easily deflected if if had heeded Churchill's Cassandra-like warnings.

Nor is the threat itself analogous; Iran and Syria don't have the military or economic strengths of Nazi Germany. But they have certain things Nazi Germany lacked. One is the capacity to develop and use nuclear weapons, either against Israel, or to threaten their neighbors, or to give to surrogate terrorists to use against any nation they wish--including, of course, the Great Satan (that's us). They also have more potential allies worldwide in the populous Muslim community than Germany ever did in the case of Nazism, or than the Japanese had for their war aims (both movements, after all, were phenomena more national than international in their appeal, although not in their power of conquest). It would require only a relatively small percentage of Muslims to be adherents of the cause of Islamist totalitarian supremacy to achieve a greater number of supporters than the population of Nazi Germany.

Patience and will were Churchill's strong suits. Patience and will are the strong suit of this particular enemy, as well, although in different ways, and for different reasons. Patience and will are most definitely not our strong suits, and this enemy knows it--because we ourselves have made that fact crystal clear.

Churchill understood the overwhelming importance of these traits. Do we? I wonder.

If we don't, another Churchill quote may help us remember (and, lest trolls accuse me of paranoid fearmongering--although I know they will anyway--let me just say that I believe we are more or less in Churchill's first stage regarding Iran, the one in which we can win without bloodshed, although probably not "easily"):

If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.

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