This has been a bad few weeks for us pessimists. I can say this with more equanimity than most, having supported the Iraq war. (After first opining that we didn’t really have the guts to do it–What do you want? I’m a p-e-s-s-i-m-i-s-t.) I supported the war only as a punitive expedition, though, a lesson in what happens to dictator-thugs who tweak Uncle Sam’s tail. I never had much faith in the democracy-spreading, nation-building business.
Yet, now, here we are, with 1989-style demonstrations out in the streets of Beirut; brave Iraqis thumbing their noses at their Islamo-terrorist fellow-countrymen; Mubarak muttering that he might, if the Egyptian people are very good and eat all their greens, let them have an opposition candidate in the next national election; Bashir Assad scurrying to provide civilian clothes for his 15,000 troops in Lebanon; that guy with two names telling Palestinian Arabs that previous strategies for driving Jews into the sea have all failed, and it’s time to try a more modern approach; and even the crusty old Saudis insisting that, why, they never intended to deny women civil rights for all those centuries, it was just an administrative oversight.
The antiwar folk have been hit hardest, of course. It’s hard to say which faction is suffering the greater mental anguish right now: the Left, domestic and foreign, for whom George W. Bush is merely a willing tool of sinister “interests” (there are no actual human beings in the lefty world-view, only Interests, Classes, Minorities, and Historical Forces), or the paleo-Right, for whom Bush is the dupe of wily Sharonists and ideological globalizers.
Personally I feel more sorry for the paleos, largely because I count several of them as friends, and am a bit that way inclined myself. Paleos (trust me here) are mostly very nice people, who are just afflicted with mild romantic tendencies–sentimental fantasies of the old Jeffersonian farmer-republic financed from customs duties or of a time in which there were lots of well-paid jobs not requiring a sheaf of college degrees. We all have our dreams, and the paleo dream is not at all an ignoble one.
In any case, the desire for the U.S.A. to mind her own business does not necessarily preclude happiness at seeing other nations emerge from barbarism into civilization, if that really is what we are seeing. There is no reason why a paleo shouldn’t say: “God bless the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iraqis, and Saudis, and all good luck to them! Now let’s bring our boys home. They have done all they can do.” Which is, in fact, pretty much my own state of mind. I told you I was that way inclined.
My pals on the neo-Right, of course, are beaming all over their faces. None of them is so dim as to think it’s game, set, and match in the Middle East, and they all have the phrase “there are many things that could still go wrong” set up as a macro on their word processors, but let me tell you, in private they are pretty darn cheerful. The phrase “irrational exuberance” comes to mind.
A lot of this is relief. President Bush’s cheering squad here in the world of conservative journalism has not always been as brimful of optimism in private as their public writings might have suggested. No names, no pack drill, but I’ve heard stuff. Through the night of doubt and sorrow, however, onward went the pilgrim band. Now that the Celestial City is in sight at last–though of course it might be a mirage; there are many things that could still go wrong–the neocons are much more relaxing to hang out with. Yes, they are saying: “Look! These nations are at last emerging from barbarism into civilization, and we helped it happen.”
Are they? And, did we? There are fair reasons for doubt on both counts. Some political scientist should do a study to tally how many wide-franchise elections, in the history of the modern world, have ushered in a rational, constitutional political order. My guess would be less than 50 percent. (In Africa, surely less than 10 percent.) It was nice to see Afghans, of all people, lining up to vote. Has Afghanistan really turned into Denmark, though? From what I have been reading, it looks more like Colombia. Democracy in Lebanon? Steve Sailer, the most intelligent of the paleocons (not to mention, as I have had occasion to observe more than once on this site, “the smartest gink I know” *) usefully points out that when you poll the people of the world to see which countries are most anti-American, the Lebanese come out at number two. Hmm.
The 1989 experience is instructive, in fact. Of the nations that had pro-democratic uprisings in that year, the only ones to have proceeded to truly constitutional government were those that had anyway had long acquaintance with it—mainly the east Europeans. In Russia the outcome was less happy; in China, it was a grisly massacre, followed by a more savvy, stronger despotism. And even in those east European nations, there were some bad moments. Once they had the government of their nation in their own hands, the Hungarians’ first thought was to go to war against Romania to recover the territories they lost at the Treaty of Trianon (1920). The U.S. ambassador, Mark Palmer, had to talk the Hungarians down off the ledge.
And how much of what is happening has flowed from our own policies? It looks to me like a lot, if not perhaps always in quite the way advertised. I mean, it may be not so much a case of Middle Easterners saying: “Gosh, those Americans with their representative institutions have been right all along! How blind we have been!” as perhaps: “For goodness’ sake, after all these years of trying out socialism, Baathism, Islamism, and all this other stuff, the stinking Americans are making fools of us! Let’s try this democracy tack–then maybe we’ll be able to get the better of the infidels at last!” Still, the fundamental premise of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policy, that the stability we had cherished in the Middle East was no longer working for us, looks to have been correct. (My own version of this strategy, which never seems to have found favor with White House speechwriters, was: If your TV set isn’t working, give it a good hard smack upside the cabinet.)
There have surely been other factors in play, too. It wasn’t just us and our war. Much as we all dislike al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, every Middle Easterner I have spoken to has told me how the rise of these modern-style TV stations opened many eyes around the region, and has been a major factor in the rising discontent towards the old status quo. Good old Father Time, the mere passing of generations, also brings in new realities and changes in understanding. And yet, even granted all that, would we be looking at these popular demands, these grudging concessions by the dictators, these bold defiances of the terror gangs, if George W. Bush had not gone to war against Saddam Hussein, and brave young Americans given their limbs and their lives to make sure the war was won? I don’t think so.
So perhaps the exuberance isn’t as irrational as all that. Of course, there are many things that could still go wrong, and I still think that the usefulness of having U.S. troops in Iraq reached the point of diminishing returns round about the end of January. All in all, though, 2005 is shaping up rather badly for us pessimists. But then, we always knew it would!
* Warren Harding’s encomium to Herbert Hoover.