For about ten weeks now, the headlines of our major newspapers blare out something like the following: “Iraq Attacks Hamper U.S. Reconstruction” or “Increasing Resistance to U.S. Efforts in Iraq.” Often the ominous headers add qualifying comparatives — “more” or “greater” — or apocalyptic adjectives and nouns such as “bleak,” “crisis,” and “chaos” — suggesting that the disorder is increasing geometrically, rather than incrementally.
Since we were told things in Iraq were getting “worse” after week two, one wonders what the daily reappearance of “worse” means by week ten — and when we will, in fact, arrive at the promised Armageddon. In the blink of an eye, we went from reading about the “massive” Shiite demonstrations, to the “irrecoverable” losses of the Baghdad museum, to the “reconstitution” of the Baathists, and now onto the sinister conspiracy concerning the temporary absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
As we glance down the page, the Iraqi news is now often framed by a suicide bombing in Israel — more recently with new combined attacks that unite the various terrorists groups into something like Murder, Inc. And then there is always the Afghan story of the assassination or suicide bombing of aid workers, peacekeepers, or soldiers who at great risk and cost to themselves are trying their best to help Afghans faster than other Afghans can hurt them. Often, a pundit — stung by past refutation of his hysterical predictions of defeat by the Taliban or thousands of dead in Iraq with millions of refugees — will seek to reclaim credibility by gleefully noting that things are no better than before our actions.
In reaction to this depressing daily fare, I often receive dozens of e-mails, phone calls, and questions during interviews that I could sum up as something like: ‘Why don’t we just leave them to themselves and go home?’ The more systematic thinkers, sensing that such a solution is at best knee-jerk and incomplete, will add, “And then if they still attack us again, we can always hit back, bomb them, and leave.”
I could summarize the anguish as something like a preference for a perpetual, but passive, Middle East no-fly zone, where American military forces contain rogue regimes and terrorists, without setting foot into the quagmire itself, thereby avoiding costs and deaths, and the inevitable charges of “occupation,” “interference,” or “imperialism.”
Americans cannot be blamed for their exasperation. In Afghanistan #1 we once kept our distance, armed the locals to fight Russian expansionist Communism on their own, left when the common enemy was defeated, accepted noninterference in Afghan affairs — and were blamed as cynical Cold War realists when the inevitable chaos followed. In Afghanistan #2, we defeated an equally odious force, stayed on to promote consensual government, attempted to provide aid — and are now being blamed as either cynical imperialists who lust after some mythical pipeline or naïve Pollyannas who are squandering blood and treasure to change people who cannot be changed.
In Iraq #1 we stayed within U.N. mandates, limited our response, went home after Kuwait was freed — and were censured for allowing Shiites and Kurds to be butchered and not going to Baghdad when the road was open and the dictator tottering. In Iraq #2 we removed the tyrant at less cost than the liberation of Kuwait during the earlier war, stayed on to ensure freedom and fair representation for various groups — and are being castigated for either using too little force to ensure needed order or too much power that stifles indigenous aspirations and turns popular opinion against us.
The answer to this dilemma is to accept that whatever we do, we shall be blamed for either too little or too much attention. Such are the inevitable wages of envy and resentment that the successful always earn from the weak and failed. That being said, there are also a number of other reasons why at the present juncture we must press ahead, contain our anger, and try to finish the nearly impossible — and absolutely thankless — task of defeating terrorists, and in Afghanistan and Iraq restoring humane government to tyrannized people.
First, the events of September 11 demonstrate that Clintonian lip biting and a few cruise missiles amid Middle East aggression earns disdain, not thanks, for magnanimity. Leave a Taliban Afghanistan alone or let Saddam’s Iraq be, and in a decade you win 20,000 al Qaeda operatives training with impunity and the sons of Saddam re-armed with nuclear weapons, unless one prefers another twelve years of 350,000 sorties and $20 billion in no-fly-zones — three or four times over. The Middle East is not static and will not cease its anti-Americanism if left to its own good graces — inasmuch as the conditions that promote terror do not derive from American provocation, but arise out of indigenous pathologies.
Second, neither is the Islamic world isolationist. Arabs and Near Eastern Muslims in the millions are desperate to emigrate to the United States and Europe. Fundamentalist clerics, mullahs, and theocrats are free to live within the confines of the Koran and in medieval bliss without their cell phones, antibiotics, glasses, televisions — and sophisticated weapons — that are either imported or indigenously produced on borrowed Western designs. But they do not — and will not.
So the problem is with their hypocritical and vocal leadership, not us — specifically their ambiguous relationship with the West and their creepy desire for Western material comforts, but not the underlying foundations of secularism, gender equity, consensual government, freedom, capitalism, and transparency that alone produce such prosperity. The best way to get America and the West out of millions of Islamic lives is not to burn effigies of George Bush in the Arab Street, but would be for Arab governments to prohibit immigration to the West, to stop importing Western material goods, and to bar decadent Westerners from entering Arab countries.
Any takers? The bitter truth is that the Middle East wants the West far more than the West the Middle East.
Third, we must not necessarily confuse the activities of the Taliban, the Baathists, Hezbollah, and other Dark-Age cadres with the majority wishes of the Arab people. Privately, most folks of the region desperately want Western freedom, medicine, entertainment, education, transportation, and consumer goods. If given ample respect and consideration, they will confess that their own theocracies and autocracies, not Western colonialists, are culpable for failing to provide the security and prosperity necessary to accommodate their exploding populations.
But poverty, corruption, ignorance, and disease, as well as good old zealotry, pride, and hysteria, can all combine to lead the throng to welcome demagogues and pseudo-reformists — consider the West’s own nightmare with Mussolini or Hitler. The angry and ignorant will always be misled by mad clerics and uniformed thugs if they offer easy solutions without costs, specifically that the easily blamed Jews and Americans, and not their own incompetence and venality, are the real sources of their catastrophe.
The Middle Eastern Street should accept that ultimately if the chilling rhetoric of an Iranian mullah, Saddam Hussein, or Hamas is followed by commensurate bellicose actions, then the response will be a super-Hornet with a pod of GPS bombs — and utter military defeat. The key is to allow the Middle East choices — isolation from the West, or peaceful coalition and interaction under their own auspices, or military defeat and subsequent regime change should their terrorists and leaders seek to threaten, attack, or kill Americans.
Fourth, for all the doom and gloom we are making amazing progress. If on the evening of September 11th, an outside observer had predicted that the following would transpire in two years, he would have been considered unhinged: Saddam Hussein gone with the wind; democratic birth pangs in Iraq; the Taliban finished and Mr. Karzai attempting to create constitutional government; Yasser Arafat ostracized by the American government and lord of a dilapidated compound; bin Laden either dead or leading a troglodyte existence; all troops slated to leave Saudi Arabia — and by our own volition, not theirs; Iran and Syria apprehensive rather than boastful about their own promotion of terror; and the Middle East worried that the United States is both unpredictable in its righteous anger and masterful in its use of arms, rather than customarily irresolute and reactive.
Finally, do not expect to read headlines like “85% of Baghdad’s Power Restored,” “Afghan Women Enroll in Schools by the Millions,” or “Americans Put an End to Secret Police and Arbitrary Executions in Iraq.” It is not the nature of the present generation of our elites — so unlike our own forefathers in postwar Japan or Germany — to express confidence in our culture, much less in the moral nature of our struggle to end the conditions that caused this war.
Between 1946 and today there are, after all, too many books, academic departments, careers, reporters, and anchormen who have institutionalized notions of moral equivalence, multiculturalism, and Western pathology from a safe and comfortable distance. But all that pessimism and self-doubt does not mean that we are failing, or that we should cease our present efforts. In fine, we are now engaged in one of the most ambitious, perilous, and radical undertakings in our history — and we are ever so slowly winning.