The Western media was relatively quiet about the quite amazing news from the recent trifecta in Iraq: very little violence on election day, Sunni participation, and approval of the constitution. Those who forecasted that either the Sunnis would boycott, or that the constitution would be–and should be–rejected, stayed mum.
But how odd that in the face of threats, a higher percentage of Iraqis in this nascent democracy voted in a referendum than did we Americans during our most recent presidential election–we who have grown so weary of Iraq’s experiment.
Something must be going on when the cable-news outlets could not whet their appetite for carnival-like violence and pyrotechnics in Iraq, and so diverted their attention to Toledo, where live streams of American looting and arson seemed to be more like Iraq than Iraq.
There have been three great challenges with the Iraqi reconstruction that would determine its success or failure–once the spectacular three-week invasion both falsely raised public perceptions of perfection in war, and posed the problem of how to rebuild an entire society whose pathological elements were never really defeated, much less humiliated during the actual conventional war.
It’s Not An American Face You See Now
By needs we had a high profile, and it unfortunately seemed to get only higher. Americans, not Iraqis, gave lectures on everything from electricity production to constitutional reform. There was essentially no Iraqi army, so Americans were put in the unenviable position of enforcing law and order–a necessary task that nonetheless could only breed resentment in the heart of the Arab and Islamic Middle East. And there was not even a semblance of a legitimate government to replace Saddam. Former dissidents were either dead or tainted with Western exile. Future democrats were in the shadows, unsure whether the beheaders and assassins might in fact turn out to be their new Taliban-like rulers.
A good way to predict accurately our future in Iraq would be to ask how these three dilemmas have evolved over the last 30 months. Fortunately, there is no replacement position for an American proconsul, and we have forgotten how rare it is now to see an American on television in any official position. No one is talking, at least publicly, of future bases or a permanent and large American presence. Instead, the Iraqis are more worried that we might leave than stay. All that is a good sign.
Second, with over 200,000 Iraqi security forces, various local policemen, and American and Coalition troops, there are perhaps nearly 400,000 actively opposed to the terrorists. The number is growing rather than shrinking. We are seeing more enlistments than defections. The result is that, incrementally and insidiously, Americans are less and less in the position of being the cop, swat-team, or battalion that Iraqis see daily as the providers of their order and security. As in the case of fewer visible diplomats, so too fewer observable soldiers shift the onus onto the Iraqis to solidify–or lose–their gift of democracy.
Third, a second national referendum was even more tranquil than the first. Things are not static in Iraq, but are on a clear path to key parliamentary elections and the first truly popularly elected government in the region’s history in December. This is already putting enormous pressures on the Syrians and some of the Gulf states, as Arab audiences see less Americans patrolling and more Iraqis voting on their television screens. And now we go from a humane and sober election to the trial of Saddam Hussein, as the first tyrant to be tried in the Middle East experiences the justice that neither he nor any other regional strongman ever granted to others.
On the periphery of all this, we are seeing a decline in Osama bin Laden’s popularity, more European worries about radical Islam, and a number of formerly ambivalent nations like Japan, India, and the former Commonwealth ever more eager to work with the United States.
Iraq? Huh? And the reaction at home? Apparently no matter. The media has long since written Iraq off as a “quagmire” and a “debacle.” The war is now hopelessly politicized and has been misrepresented in two national elections. Then we heard that the war’s purpose was either to steal oil (the price actually skyrocketed), enrich Halliburton (in fact, few other conglomerates wished to venture to Iraq), or do Israel’s dirty work (it just withdrew voluntarily from Gaza). Our aims were said to be anything other than to remove the worst dictator in modern memory, allow the Arab world a chance at democracy, and undo the calculus of Middle-Eastern terrorism that is so parasitic on the failures and barbarity of regional autocracies.
While no mainstream Democrat has yet gone the McGovern route, it is still politically toxic for any to state publicly that we should be optimistic about the future of Iraq, inasmuch as they are convinced that such an admission could only help George W. Bush. Some of us who are Democrats are baffled that the party that used to decry cynical realism, gave us the Truman Doctrine and JFK’s tough stance against Communism, galvanized us to hold steady in WWI, WWII, and Korea, and preached that we must promote and protect democracies, is now either joining the isolationist Right or drifting into quasi-pacifism–or simply standing against anything that the opposing party is for.
The public too is turned off. Perhaps it is the constant media stream of IEDs and suicide bombs–never the news of thousands of new schools, a free and stable Kurdistan, progress in the Shiite south, or any of the other countless positive developments from elections to Saddam’s trial. Polls reveal that the American people care little that, in terms of military history, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a constitutional government in his place–in less than three years and at the cost of 2000 lives–are still formidable achievements, making the lapses seem minor in comparison to those in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
No, we have now gone too far for all that. And how could we not, after the wild charges of Richard Clarke, Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, and Joe Wilson, the celebrity venom of everyone from Sean Penn to Donald Sutherland, the media revelations of Rathergate, Eason Jordan’s false charges that our military targets journalists, and Newsweek’s falsities about flushed Korans?
Don’t forget either the contributions of U.S. senators such as Dick Durbin (comparing our Guantanamo guards to Nazi, Stalinist, and Cambodian murderers) or Ted Kennedy (claiming Abu Ghraib was reopened for the same Saddam-type atrocities by Americans), who did their small part to libel those who gave freedom to millions. Whatever the good news of this election or the one in December–much less the increasing isolation of the nearby tyrant Assad, the flowering in Lebanon, and the rumbles in the Gulf and Egypt–it won’t make much difference anymore to the American people. They have decided that they are tired of the Middle East and only want to go back to the world before 9/11, forgetting that the easy shoot-a-cruise-missile-at-a-cave strategy ultimately led to the 9/11 attacks.
In similar fashion, don’t expect any appreciation from Europe. Long ago its corrupt media refashioned Iraq as an American imperial misadventure that must fail. Perhaps it was the innate jealousy and anti-Americanism that had grown up in recent years, as Europe remained stagnant while others pressed ahead.
Or the angst may derive from Europeans’ own conniving triangulation, as they worry about oil supplies, fear terrorism, and grow wary of the Muslims on their home soil. In a more crass sense, the French government was deeply intertwined in the Hussein octopus, starting with Jacques Chirac overseeing the building of the Iraqi nuclear reactor to the final embarrassment of Oil-for-Food.
We don’t expect much either from Arab intellectuals. Most determined a priori that whatever America was for, they were against. Very soon they found a way to jettison their out-of-date “America is a cynical realist who backs dictators” into the new party-line, “America is a fool that rams down foreign democracy and misplaced idealism.”
This was a subsidized toady culture that didn’t care much what Saddam or the Assads did–they were at least Arabs who killed other Arabs, after all. Indeed, most Egyptian or Gulf elites excused their own complicity with homegrown dictatorships by vilifying the Americans when they were realists and then ridiculing them when they turned idealists. So Arab mythmaking will provide any needed exegesis of Iraq to explain how the most frowned-upon people of the Middle East under Saddam will soon be the most respected under themselves.
We are left only with the U.S. military. It is without much overt public support in Iraq, demonized in Europe, and feared and resented in the Arab world. And yet had American forces lost in Afghanistan, stumbled in Iraq, or given up on the democracy, there would now be no hope for the 50 million who voted in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So when this is all over–and it will be more quickly than we imagine–there will be a viable constitutional government in Iraq. But the achievement will be considered either a natural organic process, or adopted as a success by former critics only at its safe, penultimate stage.
Most of us tragically will forget many of the American soldiers who courageously fought, died, and gave the Middle East its freedom and us our security. Purple fingers, not overloaded American helicopters taking off from the embassy roof, is the future of Iraq.
Yes, the terrorists’ assault against the Iraqi democracy will end–as all failed insurrections do–not with a bang but with a whimper.
–Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His book A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War appears this month.