The United States is engaged in the most radical and dangerous gambit in the Middle East since the end of the Ottoman Empire. Established powers are not often inclined to tamper with the status quo abroad, and so do not support the weaker and disenfranchised. They usually prefer to prop up whoever ensures order and stability. But after September 11, the old safe way was seen as dangerous, and the new dangerous way as ultimately more safe.
America not merely reversed its own past practice of supporting autocrats who pumped oil and kept Communists out, at least in the Middle East; but in staying on after the removal of Saddam Hussein—so unlike post-Soviet Afghanistan, Lebanon of 1983, or Mogadishu in 1993—it spent billions of dollars and hundreds of lives to give birth to democracy.
On the principle of one-person one-vote, the United States has somehow enfranchised the hated Shia and Kurds, without demonizing the Sunnis. And the Sunnis will probably end up with political representation commensurate with their numbers, despite a horrific past association with Saddam Hussein and the blood of American soldiers on their hands.
And the response?
Shiites claim that we are caving in to the terrorist supporters of al Qaeda and the former Hussein regime. Sunnis counter that we are only empowering the surrogates of Iranian crazies. The Iranians show their thanks for our support for their spiritual brethren in Iraq by humiliating European diplomats with promises to wipe out Israel.
In the larger Middle East, the democratic splash in the Iraqi pond is slowly rippling out, as voting proceeds in Egypt and the Gulf, Syria leaves Lebanon, and Moammar Gadhafi and Pakistan’s Dr. Khan cease their nuclear machinations. Hundreds of thousands of protesters hit the streets in Lebanon and Jordan—not to slur the United States, as predicted, for removing Saddam Hussein, but to damn Bashar Assad and al-Zarqawi as terrorist killers. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, now calls for Western pressure to root out the Syrian Baathists.
You’d never know all this from the global media or state-run news services in Europe and the Middle East.
We have sent tens of millions of dollars in earthquake relief to Pakistan, even though for over four years it has given de facto sanctuary to the killers responsible for murdering three thousand Americans. In response, the Pakistani Street expects Americans to provide debt relief, send them aid, excuse their support for our enemies—and then goes wild should we ever cross the border to retaliate against al Qaeda terrorists in their midst who are plotting to trump 9/11.
At home, much about Iraq has been turned around in Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass fashion. Indeed the debate over Iraq has too often descended into Jabberwocky-like gibberish. We were once slandered as hegemonic; but when we didn’t steal anything in Iraq, and instead spent billions in aid, suddenly we were called naive by the now realist Left.
The war was caricatured as all about grabbing oil. Then when the price skyrocketed, we were dubbed foolish for tampering with the fragile petroleum landscape, or with not charging Iraqi price-gouging exporters for our time and services.
Americans tried to remain idealistic on the principle that Iraqis, if freed and helped, could craft a workable democracy, and that such consensual governments would make the volatile Middle East safer, since elected and legitimate governments rarely attack their own kind. In response, the supposedly idealistic Left charged that we were bellicose and imperialistic–as if being on the side of the purple-fingered Iraqi voter was not preferable to being on the side of the terrorist and insurrectionist, who masked his fascism with national rhetoric.
The realist Right was aghast that profits and the balance of power were lost in the equation. The isolationists felt we were either doing Israel’s bidding, wasting lives and money on hopeless tribesmen, or fattening the government to administer a new empire. And all these alternative views were predicated on the 24-hour pulse of the battlefield, to be instantly modified, retracted, or amplified when events suggested dramatic improvement or disheartening setback.
The exasperated public is told that we had too few troops in postwar Iraq, but have too many now. We wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, so as not injure Arab sensitivities or create perpetual dependency, but we ended up needing an unfortunately high profile just to put down insurrectionists.
Jay Garner was too much the military man; Paul Bremmer too little.
Prewar forecasts warned a worried public that we might lose 3,000-5,000 soldiers just in removing Saddam. Three years later, we have removed him and sponsored a democracy to boot, and at far less than those feared numbers. But we react as if we had faced unexpected numbers of casualties.
Despite the fact that al Qaedists were in Kurdistan, Al Zarqawi was in Saddam’s Baghdad, terrorists like Abu Abas and Abu Nidal were sheltered by Iraqis, and recent archives disclose that hundreds of Iraqi terrorists were annually housed and schooled by the Baathists, we are nevertheless assured that there was no tie between Saddam and terrorists. Those who suggest there were lines of support are caricatured as liars and Bush propagandists.
Apparently, we are asked to believe that the al Qaedists whom Iraqis and Americans kill each day in Iraq largely joined up because we removed Saddam Hussein.
After September 11, many of our experts assured us that it was “not a question of if, but when” we were to be hit again—with the qualifier that the next strike would be far worse, entailing a dirty bomb, or biological or chemical agents.
Yet when we are still free from an assault 52 months later, censors assure that our safety has nothing to do with the Patriot Act, nothing to do with wiretaps, nothing to do with killing thousands of terrorists abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq, and nothing to do with creating democratic Afghan and Iraqi security forces who daily hunt down jihdadists far from America’s shores. And yet, strangely, there is no serious legislation to revoke the Patriot Act, to outlaw listening to calls from potential terrorists, or to cut off funds for operations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Summarize what the media, the Europeans, the Middle East, and the opposition at home say about Iraq, and the usual narrative is that an initial mistake was made far worse by ideologues, leading to a hopeless situation that only makes the U.S. appear foolish and impotent, while ruining the military, creating a police state at home, and emptying the treasury.
Yet these same critics surely don’t want Saddam Hussein back. They concede that after three successful elections, Iraq just might be the first truly democratic society in the history of the Middle East. And they privately acknowledge that the reputations of Osama bin Laden and Al Zarqawi are on the wane. How was that possible when almost everyone fouled up?
So how do we make sense of what seems so nonsensical? Rather easily—just keep in mind four general talking points about America’s recent role in the world and most things gradually become clearer.
‐Point One (for Americans): My own flawless three-week removal of Saddam Hussein was ruined by your error-prone postwar peace.
‐Point Two (for Middle Easterners): We are for democracy—unless you Americans help us obtain it.
‐Point Three (for Europeans): We are privately for and publicly against what you do.
‐Point Four (for everyone else): When angry at either the United States (or yourself,) just blame the Jews in America, and Israel abroad.
Sometimes in these crazy times, that is all you need to know.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.