Back to the Future
The sin of George W. Bush, to hear his critics tell it, is that he unleashed the forces of freedom in Arab-Islamic lands only to beget a terrible storm. In Iraq and in Lebanon, the furies of sectarianism are on the loose; and in that greater Middle East stretching from Pakistan to Morocco, the forces of freedom and reform appear chastened. Autocracy is fashionable once again, and that bet on freedom made in the aftermath of the American venture into Iraq now seems, to the skeptics, fatally compromised. For decades, we had lived with Arab autocracies, befriended them, taken their rule as the age-old dominion in lands unfit for freedom. Then came this Wilsonian moment proclaimed in the course of the war on Iraq. To the "realists," it had been naive and foolhardy to hold out to the Arabs the promise of freedom. We had bet on the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, thrilled to these young people in Beirut's plazas reclaiming their country from Syrian tyranny. But that promise, too, has been battered, and in the shadows, the old policy of ceding Lebanon to the rule of Syria's informers and policemen now claims a measure of vindication. On the surface of things, it is the moment of the "realists," then: They speak with greater confidence. The world had lived down, as it were, to their expectations. And now they wish to return history to its old rhythm.
But in truth there can be no return to the bosom of the old order. American power and the very force of what had played out in the Arab-Islamic lands in recent years have rendered the old order hollow, mocked its claims to primacy and coherence. The moment our soldiers flushed Saddam Hussein from his filthy spider hole, we had put on display the farce and swindle of Arab authority.
Primacy and power. We can't shy away from the very history we unleashed. We had demonstrated to the Arabs that the rulers are not deities; we had given birth to the principle of political accountability. In the same vein, we may not be comfortable with all the manifestations of an emancipated Arab Shiism--we recoil, as we should, from the Mahdi Army in Iraq and from Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut--but the Shiite stepchildren of the Arab world have been given a new claim on the Arab political order of primacy and power. In the annals of Arab history, this is nothing short of revolutionary. The Sunni Arab regimes have a dread of the emancipation of the Shiites. But American power is under no obligation to protect their phobias and privileges. History has served notice on their world and their biases. We can't fall for their legends, and we ought to remember that the road to all these perditions, and the terrors of 9/11, had led through Sunni movements that originated in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Terror and ruin can come in Sunni and Shiite drapings alike.
It was not naive idealism, it should be recalled, that gave birth to Bush's diplomacy of freedom. That diplomacy issued out of a reading of the Arab-Muslim political condition and of America's vulnerability to the disorder of Arab politics. The ruling regimes in the region had displaced their troubles onto America; their stability had come at America's expense, as the scapegoating and the anti-Americanism had poisoned Arab political life. Iraq and the struggle for a decent polity in it had been America's way of trying to extirpate these Arab troubles. The American project in Iraq has been unimaginably difficult, its heartbreak a grim daily affair. But the impulse that gave rise to the war was shrewd and justified.
Nowadays, more and more people despair of the Iraq venture. And voices could be heard counseling that the matter of Iraq is, for all practical purposes, sealed and that failure is around the corner. Now and then, the memory of the Vietnam War is summoned. America had lost the battle for Vietnam but had won the war for East Asia. That American defeat had brought ruin to Vietnam and Cambodia, but the systems of political and economic freedom in Asia had held, and the region had cushioned the American defeat, and left a huge protective role for American power. Fair enough: There was Japan in East Asia, providing political anchorage and an example of economic success. There is no Japan in that arc of trouble in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are poor pillars, themselves prey to forces of radicalism--the first weak in the scales of military power, the second a brittle, crowded land with immense troubles of its own. That overall strategic landscape, too, should be considered as we debate and anguish over Iraq.
This story appears in the December 4, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.