Victor Davis Hanson points up the irony of how the US public, and particularly Democrats, have come to view Iraq: "If we fail..."
Prior to Iraq, there was some American guilt over past realism, whether stopping before Baghdad in 1991, playing Iran off Iraq, cozying up to dictatorships, or predicating American Middle East foreign policy solely on either oil or anti-Communism. Read the liberal literature of the 1990s and it was essentially a call for what George Bush is now doing — and being damned for. Then the liberal bogeyman was not Paul Wolfowitz, but Jim Baker (“jobs, jobs, jobs”/”F—- the Jews”). Now the latter is the model of Republican sobriety.
Arab intellectuals and much of the Western Left once decried Bakerism and called for a new muscular idealism that put us on the side of the powerless reformers and not with the entrenched authoritarians. But if we fail in Iraq, then again, fairly or not, the verdict will be far more sweeping than simply the incompetence of the Bremer proconsulship or the impotence of the Maliki government.
Rather, the conventional wisdom will arise that an infantile Middle East ipso facto — whether due to Islamism, tribalism, gender apartheid, sectarianism, engrained dictatorship, or corruption — is simply incapable at this time of consensual government. Anyone who seeks such reform, whether in the Gulf, Palestine, Lebanon, or Egypt, is to be written off not only as naïve, but as reckless as well. A Libyan dissident, a feminist writer in Egypt, or an Iraqi intellectual who decries Western indifference to their plight or American tolerance of regional dictatorships will be told to quit whining and get a life, by a been-there/done-that American public.
Both carping hothouse Arab intellectuals and Western liberals should be put on notice of this change to come. However imperfect, however flawed, however improperly explained our efforts in Iraq were, they nevertheless represented a costly American about-face to offer something in the Middle East other than theocracy or dictatorship — something we are not likely to see again in our lifetime.
Democrats and liberals should likewise realize that for all their hatred of George Bush and the partisan points to be gained by coddling up to the libertarian and paleo-conservative Right, George Bush’s embrace of freedom was far closer to their own past rhetoric than almost any Republican administration in history.
There is definitely a sense of having slipped into some alternate reality from the one I knew pre-9/11. I remember in early 2001 a sense of foreboding that, with the Republicans having won the White House, there would be a shift back to the realpolitik of Bush I and James Baker. The warnings of the Clinton administration about the strategic threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the urgent need to push for regime change in Iraq would be ignored, and we would continue to treat the Middle East as, in the words of Thomas Friedman, "a big dumb gas station". I fully expected the Republicans to stick to their traditional script, and ignore democratic reformers in the Middle East in favor of the usual dictators, tyrants and strongmen.
I didn't figure on George W. Bush, the most unlikely figure in the world to make democratic reform a centerpiece of Middle East policy. In a post-9/11 world, he concluded that there was no safety in the old "stability", only societies forced to choose between rule by thugs or theocrats, who would continue to demonize the West in order to redirect the anger and resentment of their people against an external "other", i.e. "decadent" democracies. Something had to be done to change that dynamic, otherwise it was only a matter of time before we were confronted with an alliance of terrorist networks equipped by their state sponsors with terrifying weapons that could kill hundreds of thousands and wreak social and economic turmoil. He concluded that confronting dictatorial regimes that were actively pursuing such weapons would be far less costly than fighting them when they had achieved their aims and had become emboldened.
It has now become fashionable to deride the so-called "neocons" as Machiavellians ruthlessly plotting global American hegemony, but an objective reading of their writings reveals an idealism rooted in the belief that America should stand with the forces of democratic reform and liberalism in places like the Middle East. Given a choice between coddling dictators and championing rule of law, the equality of women, and a free press, we should be unapologetically in favor of the latter. That support would not necessarily have to be military in nature, but diplomacy must to be backed with a credible threat of force or else it is ineffectual, especially in dealing with despotic regimes.
Now, with the neocons discredited and the general consensus that post-Saddam Iraq is ungovernable, we are back to a weird nostalgia for the dictators. James Baker is suddenly considered the voice of reasonableness by his erstwhile Democratic critics, even as he urges cutting deals with the likes of Iran's Ahmadinejad and Syria's Assad, who he assures us with a straight face have a long-term interest in a stable Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraqi democrats who risked their lives to elect a representative (if flawed and ineffectual) government are to be ignored. And bizarrely, Israel, the only true democracy in the region, is treated as a bargaining chip as we pursue the delusion that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the magic key that will resolve Sunni-Shia bloodletting in Iraq and cause Iran to abandon its nuclear program and ambitions to dominate the region. And these are the "realists"!
And in the midst of all of it, there's George W. Bush, his popularity in the toilet, his credibility losing altitude by the minute, his every statement second-guessed, his war-fighting strategy undermined -- and yet he keeps at it, sending in yet more troops to take on the militias and terrorist gangs that are determined to impose their will on post-Saddam Iraq and make it a base for jihad against the West. Many of us have checked out, having concluded this war is already lost and not worth a single additional American life. Others want it to be lost if only to repudiate George W. Bush, whom they despise more than Saddam Hussein, the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, or Moqtada Al-Sadr. Ironically, Bush remains a "true democrat" while his critics on the left and right seem to have retreated to the comforts and illusions of the old realpolitik.
But whether the so-called "surge" turns the tide or represents yet another failed attempt to stabilize Iraq, we should all be desperately hoping it succeeds. Because to hope it fails, or to express ambivalence -- as apparently one third of Americans do according to a recent poll -- is to objectively side with religious zealots, Ba'athist thugs, and ethnic cleansers against the majority of Iraqis who want to live decent lives, just because you don't like Bush and want him to go down. If, like me, you retain the liberal idealism you grew up with, that realization should make you shudder.
UPDATE: In a must-read essay on America's checkered history with Iraq and the choices the US has made over the years, Neo-neocon makes a similar observation:
The funny thing about the whole thing (and I mean funny-strange, not funny ha-ha) is that it is the neocon philosophy that represents one of the only strategies offering a possible way out of the realpolitik dilemma. And yet those who criticize our realpolitik decisions to back dictators also criticize our neonconnish decisions to overthrow them and try to institute a better and more democratic form of government. Odd, isn't it?