Politics & Policy

From Baghdad to Benghazi

Several factors catalyzed the Arab spring. But the Bush Doctrine set the premise.

Voices around the world, from Europe to America to Libya, are calling for U.S. intervention to help bring down Moammar Qaddafi. Yet for bringing down Saddam Hussein, the U.S. has been denounced variously for aggression, deception, arrogance, and imperialism.

A strange moral inversion, considering that Saddam’s evil was an order of magnitude beyond Qaddafi’s. Qaddafi is a capricious killer; Saddam was systematic. Qaddafi was too unstable and crazy to begin to match the Baathist apparatus: a comprehensive national system of terror, torture, and mass murder, gassing entire villages to create what author Kanan Makiya called a Republic of Fear.

#ad#Moreover, that systemized brutality made Saddam immovable in a way that Qaddafi is not. Barely armed Libyans have already seized half the country on their own. Yet in Iraq, there was no chance of putting an end to the regime without the terrible swift sword (it took all of three weeks) of the United States.

No matter the hypocritical double standard. Now that revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, it’s not just Iraq that has slid into the memory hole. Also forgotten is the once proudly proclaimed “realism” of years one and two of President Obama’s foreign policy — the “smart power” antidote to Bush’s alleged misty-eyed idealism.

It began on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first Asia trip, when she publicly played down human-rights concerns in China. The administration also cut aid for democracy promotion in Egypt by 50 percent. And cut civil-society funds — money for precisely the organizations we now need to help Egyptian democracy — by 70 percent.

This new realism reached its apogee with Obama’s reticence and tardiness in saying anything in support of the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. On the contrary, Obama made clear that nuclear negotiations with the discredited and murderous regime (talks that a child could see would go nowhere) took precedence over the democratic revolutionaries in the street — to the point where demonstrators in Tehran chanted “Obama, Obama, you are either with us or with them.”

Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman, however, the administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.

Iraq, of course, required a sustained U.S. military engagement to push back totalitarian forces trying to extinguish the new Iraq. But is this not what we are being asked to do with a no-fly zone over Libya? In conditions of active civil war, taking command of Libyan air space requires a sustained military engagement.

Now, it can be argued that the price in blood and treasure that America paid to establish Iraq’s democracy was too high. But whatever side you take on that question, what’s unmistakable is that to the Middle Easterner, Iraq today is the only functioning Arab democracy, with multiparty elections and the freest press. Its democracy is fragile and imperfect — last week, security forces cracked down on demonstrators demanding better services — but were Egypt to be as politically developed in, say, a year as Iraq is today, we would think it a great success.

For Libyans, the effect of the Iraq War is even more concrete. However much bloodshed they face, they have been spared the threat of genocide. Qaddafi was so terrified by what we did to Saddam & Sons that he bargained away his weapons of mass destruction. For a rebel in Benghazi, that is no small matter.

Yet we have been told incessantly how Iraq poisoned the Arab mind against America. Really? Where is the rampant anti-Americanism in any of these revolutions? It’s Yemen’s president and the delusional Qaddafi who are railing against American conspiracies to rule and enslave. The demonstrators in the streets of Egypt, Iran, and Libya have been straining their eyes for America to help. They are not chanting the antiwar slogans — remember “No blood for oil”? — of the American Left. Why would they? America is leaving Iraq having taken no oil, having established no permanent bases, and having left behind not a puppet regime but a functioning democracy. This, after Iraq’s purple-fingered exercises in free elections seen on television everywhere set an example for the entire region.

Facebook and Twitter have surely mediated this pan-Arab (and Iranian) reach for dignity and freedom. But the Bush Doctrine set the premise.

 Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 the Washington Post Writers Group.

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