Friday, September 15, 2006

Alter's alternate universe

I've never found much use for the game of historical "what-if," as it is rarely anything more than utter rationalism, arbitrary speculation, and wishful thinking. History is the product of ideas across an entire culture, not of chance happenings or unitary decisions. As expected, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter's recent post-9/11 "what-if" measures as expected. Alter envisions a world where all is well, thanks to none other than President Bush.

As Bush warned, catching terrorists wasn't easy, but he kept at it. At the battle of Tora Bora, CIA operatives on the ground cabled Washington that Osama bin Laden was cornered, but they desperately needed troop support. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld immediately dispatched fresh forces, and the evildoer was killed. While bin Laden was seen as a martyr in a few isolated areas, the bulk of the Arab world had been in sympathy with the United States after 9/11 and shed no tears. After their capture, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other 9/11 terrorists were transported to the United States, where they were tried and quickly executed.

Today, Al Qaeda remains a threat but its opportunities for recruitment have been scarce, and the involvement of the entire international community has helped dramatically reduce terrorist attacks worldwide. Because Bush believes diplomacy requires talking to adversaries as well as friends, even Syria and Iraq were forced to help. By staying "humble," as he promised in 2000, he preserved much of the post-9/11 good feeling abroad, which paid dividends when it came time to pull together a coalition to handle North Korea and Iran.
Did you see the fast one Alter plays? Bush is simultaneously bold (dispatching fresh forces into Afghanistan to catch Bin Laden), and humble (smooth-talking Syria and a pre-liberation Iraq to helping squelch Islamic terror.) Alter totally evades how Bush has been "humble" throughout his entire presidency. A bold man would have dropped nuclear bombs on Afghanistan rather than risk a single American life for the Taliban's intransigence. A bold man would not have taken a year to beg the UN for permission to topple Saddam. And what evidence does Alter offer that "talking" to Syria and Iraq would have convinced them of anything. Israel has been talking to the Palestinians for years. Remember the Oslo accords? What has Israel received in return, other than unending jihad?

Alter piles it on even thicker.

At home, some aides suggested that Bush simply tell the nation to "go shopping." But the president knew he had a precious opportunity to ask Americans for real sacrifice. He took John McCain's suggestion and pushed through Congress an ambitious national-service program that bolstered communities and helped train citizens as first responders.

Soon Bush put the country on a Manhattan Project crash course to get off oil. He bluntly told Detroit that it was embarrassing that Chinese automakers had better fuel efficiency, he classified SUVs as cars, and he imposed a stiff gas tax with a rebate for the working poor. To pay for it, he abandoned his tax cuts for the wealthy, reminding the country that no president in history had ever cut taxes in the middle of a war. This president would be damned if he was going to put more oil money into the pockets of Middle Eastern hatemongers who had killed nearly 3,000 of our people. To dramatize the point, he drove to his 2002 State of the Union address in a hybrid car. Sales soared.
Here Alter engages in his wishful thinking. The same president who was "humble" before our adversaries should all of a sudden be demanding when it comes to the American people. Damn us, with our selfish, oil consuming, SUV driving ways. We should be compelled to sacrifice, paying even more in taxes and serving the nation as it ought to be served. If Alter says "what if," I say, "whatever."

Alter is not finished yet, not when he has yet to fully chime in on Iraq.

In 2003, Vice President Cheney advised the president to take out Iraq's Saddam Hussein militarily. But Bush was beginning to understand that his veep, while sounding full of gravitas, was in fact reckless. When it became clear that Saddam posed no imminent threat, Bush resolved to neuter him, Kaddafi style. When the president found, after a little asking around, that the 10-year cost of invading Iraq would be a crushing $1.2 trillion, he opted out of this war of choice.
Here, Alter isn't even internally consistent. Just a few paragraphs above Iraq was a strategic partner after Bush's "listening" and due deference. Why would Cheney then want to causelessly attack such a valuable asset in the fight against Islamic militancy? And what about Iran and their nuclear ambitions? How will the fountainhead of Islamic jihad suddenly change course and enter the world of civilized nations in Alter's alternate universe?

Alter's "what-if" analyses shows that he simply does not grasp the root of America's problems. Americans say that they love their liberty, but they are woefully inconsistent about it, neither understanding its moral source, nor what it will take to properly defend it. A proud people, jealously guarding their lives and freedom and willing to act consistently to defend them would not long suffer a pathetic and irrational foe like militant Islam, nor would they tolerate the statist's pipe dream of higher taxes and even more sacrifice. If Alter wanted to name Bush's true fault, it would be his unprincipled pragmatism, and if Alter wanted to name its source, it would have to be in the ideas of the people who elected him.

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