Interview with Victor Davis Hanson: 'We're Removing Saddam Hussein'
Proceedings, March 2003 Placed by some in the same category with military historian John Keegan, Victor Davis Hanson is considered one of the most thought-provoking commentators on military strategy today. The author of several books, including An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), he also writes a weekly column for National Review Online and appears frequently on television as an expert commentator. The professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and current visiting Shifrin professor of military history at the U.S. Naval Academy talked recently in his office with the Naval Institute's Fred L. Schultz.
Proceedings: How important is a strong navy?
Hanson: Historically, a strong navy has always been critical if any power wanted to exercise influence beyond its own borders. You must have a navy in times of war, but you also must have one as a means of deterrence during peace.
Throughout history, powers that did not have a strong navy, even though they were impressive on land, usually failed in all-out war. For example, Sparta wins the Peloponnesian War only when it builds a navy through Persian subsidies. Rome wins the Punic War only when it builds a navy. Germany loses both world wars, in part because it doesn't have a navy that can challenge the Allies. Japan is a formidable power beyond its population and resources because of its navy. And when that is gone, it fails. The Soviet Union cannot win the Cold War because it never can really challenge the United States at the sea.
Proceedings: Is the U.S. Navy the only deterrent navy in the world today?
Hanson: I think it is. We have 12 active carriers and, in theory, 12 battle groups. We haven't seen this imbalance in relative military strength since antiquity. So it is the only power that can project force both conventionally and unconventionally.
Proceedings: What are the roles of the international navies?
Hanson: Just because an individual nation cannot project global military power does not mean it should not have a strong navy. The Israeli Navy is small, but it's quite adept at deflecting maritime terrorist attacks from the Mediterranean. Spain and France protect the borders of Southern Europe, not just from possible terrorist attacks, but from illegal immigration and smuggling. The Greek Navy is quite small, but it's also quite good, and it serves a purpose of letting the Turks know Greece is an equal partner in NATO. So navies have value beyond their actual military efficacy. They are the first and most immediate ways of protecting one's shores and providing forward deterrence.
Proceedings: You've written about differences between the situations in Iraq and North Korea. What about Iran?
Hanson: Until 9/11, I think one could make the argument that Iranian-inspired terrorists had killed more Americans than any other group. Iran has actively funded terrorism and is an enemy of the United States.
The question is what do we do about it? Unlike the Saudis, who have funded terrorism and who are duplicitous friends, or the Jordanians and the Egyptians who tolerate it and who are also sometimes duplicitous friends, and unlike the fascist dictatorships that are overt enemies—Syria, Libya, and Iraq—Iran is a little different. First, the government is theocratic. But more important, the people—who were exposed to Western tradition under the Shah and who are far more literate and in some cases secular—seem to be in a dilemma. The old socialist critique of America—just let us be indigenous and we'll be happy—was given to them by default with the abdication of the Shah.
The people have had two decades of misery, or the miasma that the Mullahs have brought to Iran, and they are quite nostalgic about their earlier Western secularism. This is the best example I know of a government that hates us and a people who like us. When these countries flip, they usually flip in directions that are favorable to the West. So I think that is our policy right now to contain North Korea and to contain Iran, because they give some indication that they may, in fact, adopt a Western-style consensual government in reaction.
The Saudi government is parasitic. It wants the patina of the West—capital affluence, technology, airlines, weapons, shopping malls, air conditioning, antibiotics, everything it imports from the West. But it is careful not to swallow the West whole. It has gender apartheid. It is anti-Semitic. It has a dictatorial government. And it has a closed, fascist press that publishes things we haven't seen on the world scene since the 1940s in Germany. That should bother us.
So what is our hypocrisy in foreign relations based on? Two things: One, Saudi Arabia is responsible for 25% of current oil reserves; and two, it was a bulwark against Soviet communism and Soviet aggression beyond its shores. I think both of those considerations are becoming more problematic. The world oil market is more complex now. We don't import as much from Saudi Arabia; oil is being found in Russia and off the coast of Africa. New technologies are on the horizon. As those two pillars of past U.S diplomacy start to lessen in importance, or topple, we are forced to look at Saudi Arabia in a very different way.
I don't know what we're going to do. I don't think our people in Washington have even contemplated what we're going to do if, in fact, there is a consensual government installed in Iraq. We're going to have 5,000 troops protecting a monarchy from a democracy. And that won't be tenable or morally or logically defensible.
Proceedings: It has been said that the rest of the world thinks differently about the United States from what we think of ourselves. Why is that so?
Hanson: They have some legitimate grievances, but a lot of it is based on cynicism and jealousy. For example, if you're a Western power and you have a robust economy, and you propose not to spend 5% to 7%, but maybe .5% of GNP [gross national product] on your military, then you're not going to have forces commensurate with your population and economic power. Therefore, you put more currency in the international criminal court—the Kyoto Accords, the U.N. [United Nations], the E.U. [European Union]. And if you do have military power, you will respect those in some ways. But you have alternatives.
Europeans really have no alternative if someone blows up the Louvre or al Qaeda attacks the Vatican. So the Europeans put their lot in with these international courts and such. The problem with that is some of them are not only bureaucratic and anti-democratic, but they're staffed by people from countries like Syria on the Security Council or Lybia on the Commission on Human Rights.
If the United States has singular military power, then a lot of forces in the world vie to use that power for some particular agenda. When it's used in such a way, the United States is considered part of the global community. When it's not, they call it unilateralism. One concrete example is when nearly 200,000 Europeans were butchered in the heart of Europe, and no European power did much of anything. Some 57 days later, the U.S. Air Force removed [Yugoslavia President] Slobodan Milosevic. Before we intervened, they were calling us isolationists. After we intervened, they were calling us interventionists. But while we were intervening, they more or less approved.
The world competes for the attention, the influence, and the use of this power. And when you combine that with envy and jealousy, it's very hard to be popular. You never satisfy everybody. All we can do is have a consistent agenda, if possible, after the distortion of the Cold War is over. We no longer, in some Pavlovian manner, have to support right-wing dictatorships on the principle that at least they're not communist and they can evolve into consensual societies.
We need to have a more sustainable, predictable pattern that we're going to promote open markets and consensual governments. The last several interventions were very different from the Cold War. We're not going into a Third World country and putting in a dictator like Somoza [Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle]. We got rid of [Panama dictator General Manuel] Noriega, who was a fascist, and then democracy followed. We're pulling out of the Philippines, where they have a plebiscite and don't want us there. We're removing Milosevic, who's a fascist. We're removing the Taliban, who are fascists. We're removing Saddam Hussein, who is a fascist.
This has created an enormous dilemma for the left in the United States, because the traditional critique of U.S. military power has always been that it is promoting authoritarian fascism. But it's not. That's why we see this strange uncertainty on the radical left. They want to be against the United States, but they don't want to be friendly to the people who are against the United States—the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, for example.
Proceedings: What can history teach us about fighting the war on terrorism?
Hanson: I think a lot of things. The Greeks would tell us that war is like water, and the method that manifests itself is just the pump. And the pumps change, but the water does not. Certain laws never change. We need to realize that, because we're hearing a lot of cacophony about fourth-generational warfare, asymmetrical warfare, postmodern warfare, and postheroic warfare. But in fact, almost every element of the war on terror we are experiencing now has been seen before. There always will be people who will use terrorism or resort to unconventional warfare. And we forget that sometimes, getting caught up in the rules and the landscape of the present. We have a conventional force, but we also are doing unconventional things to fight this new enemy. We have not come to the end of history. After the war on terror there will be other crises. Certain laws remain. Moral clarity, consensuality, and the idea you are on the side of history, promoting freedom, backed by both conventional and unconventional military force, form the age-old calculus that wins wars.
Professor Hanson, left, appears on New Year's Day 2003 with Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume (COURTESY OF THE FOX NEWS CHANNEL, "SPECIAL REPORT WITH BRIT HUME").
Proceedings: How effective do you think the new Department of Homeland Security is going to be?
Hanson: At first glance, any combination of more bureaucracy to make a bigger bureaucracy scares the heck out of all of us. On the other hand, it does seem there was a colossal intelligence failure prior to 9/11. We had not just the CIA operating independently from the National Security Agency and the FBI and local authorities, but within these security agencies were rival groups. So any bureaucracy that tries to combine those offers some hope.
I don't see the solutions for our security in new agencies, per se. It should be more a change in mentality. For example, people in the CIA were in Kurdistan years ago, and they knew exactly what Kurdistan was about and that it could be broken off from Saddam Hussein. The people wanted to revolt. But they were turned down, or they were despised, or they were considered cowboys. In the 1980s and '90s, there was a naivete in our intelligence groups. They were under the impression that technology was more valuable than human power, or operatives on the ground. Eccentricity and individualism within a bureaucracy were to be looked on with skepticism. Americans would not hire people who had blood on their hands. The result was that we turned these sort of maverick, highly unconventional agencies that were for our own good into something like the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] or the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles].
Proceedings: How do you feel about being called a loose-cannon conservative, and how does that sit with those of your colleagues in California who might be considered liberal?
Hanson: All I can tell you is I'm still a registered Democrat. I have a liberal twin brother who disagrees with everything I write. And I have a far more liberal older brother who not only disagrees with what I write, but I imagine is really bothered by it. I had two conservative Democratic parents who were in the Populist tradition of farmers, sort of William Jennings Bryan types.
Proceedings: Do the people at The National Review know that?
Hanson: Yes, they do. But I'm not political. I do not write for The National Review on domestic politics, other than just generic critiques. I have no qualms in telling you I did vote for George W. Bush, simply because I think his world view about human nature was much more akin to my own skeptical view, and much less naive than the alternative. Had the alternative been elected and come into power, I think we would have had a big problem right now in the war against terror. They would not have reacted as resolutely as President Bush has. That is one of the reasons I voted for him. I thought the world had become a much more dangerous place under the [former President Bill] Clinton administration.
As for the academic world, I say anybody in the humanities would have to confess that 90% of us are liberal Democratic or far more liberal than even Democratic. I have few fans in classics or history departments for writing things that support the Bush administration, the war on terror, or the U.S. military.
One thing is bothersome. I've had people tell me that they have liked things I wrote or am writing as a historian—whether it's on the Greek city-state, or the history of farming, or the nature of ancient militaries—but they won't read me anymore because they read a column I wrote. They think I inject contemporary political views into the ancient world, as if the entire race-gender-class engine that drives academia in this country is not predicated on contemporary political objectives. But I try not to do that.
It has been kind of lonely. I talk a lot about it to my wife and some of my students. One of the ironies is that almost all my students are of minority backgrounds. I live on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California. One of my brothers is married to a Mexican American. The other brother is married to someone who is Mexican and has two stepchildren who are Mexican American. My kids, two daughters, are going with Mexican American kids who are the children of aliens or immigrants. When I'm on my farm, I don't see anybody who's not Mexican. So I take a lot of the liberal criticism I get with a grain of salt, because I find it aristocratic and elitist.
Most university progressives don't live with the very people they champion in the abstract. This is so much the case that I almost think it becomes a psychological mechanism for a lot of academic liberals. Talking about race, class, and gender in the abstract from the university lounge seems to give them psychic reassurance that their suburban home, their European vacation, the prep school for their kids, and the segregated life they live is justifiable. I would suggest to them that their discussions of these issues pale in comparison to living next to somebody from a different background, or teaching somebody who's poor.
Proceedings: How are the students different between the U.S. Naval Academy and California State University Fresno?
Hanson: I just love the students here at the Naval Academy. If I have a class of 30 at Cal State Fresno, I'll have 5 really good students. But if I have a class of 30 here, I'll have 25 top students. So there's more uniformity. No student here is better than my best students at Fresno, it's just that there are so many more of them here. And there is less variation.
Teaching here almost reminds me of going into a time warp. The students I have in California come with bare midriffs, dyed hair, children, animals, pets. I have students 70 years old, and I have students 16 from high school. Here they're relatively the same age, they all more or less dress alike, and they all talk alike—Yes, Sir. No, Sir. It's been a nice change of pace. In 20 years of teaching, I've never had everyone come to class. Here, nobody misses class. They are all on time, and they all stay. In California, 20% of the people don't come to class. Of those who come, 20% leave early. And another 20% come late. So that's what is different. I'm teaching just 40% of my students.
But the Cal State system is therapeutic. It's not designed for education; it's designed to take people from different classes and races and ethnic backgrounds, put them on a university campus, make them feel good, pour a bunch of money into the process, and then let them graduate somehow with the idea that we've eased social tension. And it works. But it's not education.
Proceedings: What about the faculties?
Hanson: This was the biggest surprise. Some of my friends told me this year would be very different. "You'll see people who have pretty mainstream views," they told me, meaning mildly conservative. In fact, I found the faculty here at least as liberal, or more liberal, than my California faculty. I've had people here say things that were more critical of the military than I ever heard in California.
Proceedings: In light of the 11 September attacks and anthrax and threats of weapons of mass destruction, what scares you most?
Hanson: I suppose it would be two or three vaccinated terrorists with 300 or 400 pounds of anthrax, driving around Washington, D.C., throwing baggies of it out the door. It's a type of biological weapon I think we underestimate. We know Saddam Hussein literally has tons of it in machine-grade, dried, aerosol form. And he has terrorists who want to use it. The only thing saving us now is that, so far, no one has quite figured out the logistics of it all. But I'm very scared about that.
The problem is not weapons of mass destruction but who has control of them. England and Russia, right now, have anthrax. I'm not worried about them. It's him. We're going to leave it as a legacy to our children if we don't solve the problem. We've got to remove the man who can make and abuse weapons of mass destruction, not just the weapons, per se.