A Tender Salute and Pleasant Reply
by Mark Helprin
My Claremont Review of Books essay "Decision in the West" (Winter 2008/09), while recognizing the Bush Administration's prevention of further organized attacks upon American soil as a great accomplishment, took both parties to task, as I have done frequently, for weakening the national security. This equal-opportunity criticism engendered an instantaneous reaction from Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to George W. Bush, in a blog for National Review Online and, as "Fisking Mark Helprin," emailed in Clinton-war-room style to seemingly everyone in possession of a computer.
I am a small subject, and the war is a big subject, but a large part of the defense of the Bush war strategy offered by Mr. Wehner was directed pointlessly at me, ad hominem, in prose sometimes illuminated by flashes of brilliant vacancy and in conjunction with the magical proof that the war in Iraq is being won, in a decent interval, and with inconsequential damage to our strategic position. How could one possibly disagree, as I did, with such a happy conclusion? While charitably lamenting my fall, Wehner goes on to explain the errors of my ways.
To begin, I am guilty of "very sloppy writing," although he may have in mind someone else, as he often refers to me by two different names in the same paragraph, and, unless he is ignorant of antecedent agreement (which, knowing what sloppy writing is, he would not be), believes that I delivered President Bush's second inaugural address. (For the record, I didn't.)
My sloppiness is all of a piece, because after all it was I who wrote the 1996 Republican presidential nominee's acceptance speech, which "was a bust, and helped contribute to Dole's loss to Bill Clinton." As if anticipating this statement and perhaps addressing Mr. Wehner himself, Norman Podhoretz, his ally in the war debate, wrote that the speech was "amazing...astonishing...sublime...the most distinguished political oration anyone had delivered in America in a very long time," with "language of such beauty and eloquence" that its "luminous phrases continued leaping out and lighting up the rhetorical landscape," and
raised our political discourse to a literary level higher than it has ever reached before in the living memory of even those of us who share with [Dole] ‘the gracious compensations of age.' And for thus enhancing and indeed ennobling our public life with words of exceptional loveliness and images of great richness and coherence...[it] was rewarded with a Philistine indifference that shames us as a nation and that tells us something more disheartening about the corruption of taste and the erosion of standards in America [and about Peter Wehner] than all the lowest and most vulgar excrescences of pop culture put together.
I am capable, it seems, of misjudging victory, sloppy writing, and the composition of bustful speeches, because I suffer a corrosive envy for the elect who have worked in the Bush White House, the very epicenter of victory. Of my uniquely individual notice of President Bush's ineloquence, we have: "Reading between the lines, his use of the word ‘eloquently' probably translates into ‘we need more speeches written by Mark Halperin [sic]."
No we don't. Not in my view anyway, which is that we need no more speeches written by me ever again. I came to this conclusion about five years ago, and will no longer write for anyone else. Until Bob Dole blew my cover, my direct involvement in politics and policy was covert. Over several decades, I had indeed written speeches. What Mr. Wehner cannot know, despite his careless declaration of probabilities, is that I did this (like jury duty) solely as a painful obligation of citizenship; turned down policy positions in the White House, Senate, and elsewhere; insisted upon anonymity; never received a penny; and never once wrote a speech except to express a policy or policies that I myself had formulated. How careless and revelatory that Wehner claims to know my mind. I would not claim to know his, even though the territory to be mapped would require only a short overflight.
In connection with my judgment that the Bush goal of ending tyranny in the world was perhaps a tad overambitious, with a palsied finger upon the trigger Wehner says, "Helprin either didn't read the speech from which he quotes, or he willfully misrepresented it." This is a serious charge, of which he is confident because he believes that I was referring to "the President's [sic] second inaugural address, in which he said: ‘So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms....'"
Actually, I did read the speech and did not represent it, willfully or otherwise, as it was a different speech. To wit, the State of the Union Address of January 31, 2006, in which the president said, "Abroad, our nation is committed to an [sic] historic, long-term goal: we seek the end of tyranny in our world." But even in regard to the first utterance, my criticism—that this is a grandiose project in any context and certainly for a country that has been unable to accomplish more limited versions of it in Korea, Vietnam, and, as we shall see, some primitive countries in the Middle East—remains valid, and is not vitiated by the qualification (sometimes offered and sometimes not) that the task is not primarily of arms. Most of our recent forays in this utopian direction have been spasms of arms, and the fact that war is in large part political is neither newly discovered nor excuses an incapacity to frame reasonable objectives.
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I am taken to task for being "persistently unwilling to accept that Iraq is a democracy," and "on the matter of reforging the political culture of the Arabs: that, too, is happening." If Iraq is a democracy because it has held elections, then so was the Soviet Union. Under pressure from the United States, Iraq is unenthusiastically pretending to be a democracy while it remains a forced confederation of three homogenous and mutually hostile religious and/or ethnic communities that will not and cannot be brought together contentedly. Nor could our 140,000 troops plus Karen Hughes have been even vaguely—even microscopically—successful in changing the political culture of the several hundred million Arabs, a culture so deeply entwined with religion as to make such an effort not only entirely useless but also remarkably incendiary.
My opinion is based not on thoughtless partisan tropisms but on more than 40 years involvement in the question, a careful reading of history, academic training with the leading scholars and historians of the Middle East, and service in deserts, mountains, and villages of the region, speaking the languages and walking around at night with a machine gun in pursuit of the people relevant to this argument, whose character I was most vividly induced to assess. And, my opinion aside, when one's decisions may spill the blood of one's countrymen, as a general rule facts are better than dreams.
Jumping over to China, Mr. Wehner objects to my assertions, expressed in these pages and elsewhere, that we have reconfigured our forces so as poorly to prepare them for a conflict with—rather than guerillas—nations capable of naval operations, offensive and defensive air war, and battle in heavy formation. He accuses me of perhaps wanting "to build a massive army the size of China's...while China was simultaneously transforming (lightening) their [sic] military to look more like the one Rumsfeld was building." This might be a good point except for the fact that the military China is building is like the one Rumsfeld was tossing away. China lies across the Pacific. We can face it only on the sea and in the air. Despite this, President Bush built fewer ships than even his fun-loving predecessor who "d[id]n't speak to the military." The initial requirement for the F-22, America's best and vitally necessary air dominance aircraft, was 750. By the end of the Bush presidency, the Air Force found itself fighting a rearguard action to preserve 183. That's not transformation, it's decimation.
There are many similar examples of the decline and neglect of America's fighting capacity, for which "transformation" does not and cannot compensate. Shown in this regard the little difference between Presidents Clinton and Bush, the electorate may reasonably have foreseen no penalty in choosing in 2008 a Democrat over a Republican, depriving the Republican Party of the core issues of national security. As cover for plain incompetence, blind partisan loyalty usually brings an equal measure of electoral repudiation and defeat, which is what happened.
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I have neither the time nor the inclination to answer Mr. Wehner's every slipshod and accusative particularity. I will, however, address his thesis, which is that the war has been well fought and a success.
With control of the air, heavy weapons, and a spectacular battlefield picture, there was and will be virtually no tactical engagement in Iraq that we did not or cannot win. The much vaunted increase in troop numbers—which the president's critics had for a long time advocated to entirely deaf ears—was proportionally quite small. Meanwhile, we left a large part of Iraq, took 3,500 vehicles off the roads every month via internal supply flights, increased air strikes by 400%, iterated a schedule for withdrawal, and armed the people whom we had been fighting since 2003. (We did not do this, by the way, to the Wehrmacht.) We will leave a government friendly to Iran and hostile to American interests in the Middle East. It will not be democratic insofar as its people vote, as they do almost invariably, only to confirm existing communal loyalties. The country has not in its modern history been able to resist dissolution except by the agency of foreign armies or indigenous oppression, and during the American sojourn not a single element of the fundamental dynamic has been addressed except by military means that quickly evaporate or by good wishes that are little more than blown kisses.
Staying and leaving have been and will be equally destructive to America's substantive and psychological deterrent power. The new orientation of our deeply eroded forces ill-prepares them for the future while it simultaneously invites rising states to sprint ahead where we have faltered. Because the Bush apparatus was able neither to comprehend the political element of war nor to frame workable war aims, it set itself a constantly adjusted series of impossible tasks while ignoring the domestic time limits and cost/benefit calculations of an electorate that finally substituted for an administration with the will but not the wit to fight, one with neither.
Had we approached the war differently—as variously proposed privately and in public—we might have avoided the loss of countless lives, strengthened our overall strategic position, preserved and augmented our military power, achieved our essential defensive objectives, avoided polarization at home, and failed to encourage the hostile nations that President Obama now carefully appeases.
Invited to print his piece in its entirety in the CRB, Mr. Wehner refused unless granted the last word, which he claimed he would have elsewhere anyway. But neither he nor I will have the last word, as it belongs to the facts, which will come clear in good time if they have not already. Fact is a rock that will not be washed away in torrents of self-serving cognitive dissonance. Meanwhile, I don't want the last word but only, I hope, the best word.