Monday, February 28, 2005

Denial is a river in Cautious Optimism

I nearly fell out of my chair last week when I read an excerpt from a Der Spiegel article (sorry, no link) covering Bush’s European charm offensive which briefly pondered whether Bush might actually be right about his Middle East policy.

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jackson Diehl wrote the following:

As thousands of Arabs demonstrated for freedom and democracy in Beirut and
Cairo last week, and the desperate dictators of Syria and Egypt squirmed under
domestic and international pressure, it was hard not to wonder whether the
regional transformation that the Bush administration hoped would be touched off
by its invasion of Iraq is, however tentatively, beginning to happen.
Why was he trying hard not to wonder about the regional transformation? Is that supposed to be unthinkable? It certainly is to Maureen Dowd who refused to answer a question posed by Tim Russert on Sunday’s Meet the Press. When asked if Bush’s policy my have actually started the chain of events, Dowd dodged and parried as best she could:

MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, "on a roll"--there were no weapons of
mass destruction, which was the primary rationale for the war, but would you now accept the fact that, because of the invasion of Iraq, there is a possibility of
democracy in Iraq and perhaps that may spread through the Middle East?

MS. DOWD: I think Bill and Tom are right. It's so 20th century to go to war because you have to. Now, we go to war because we want to. But the problem with that is that kind of moral absolutism gets you into a lot of ends-justify-the-means traps. And that's what we saw in Europe and with Putin, because Putin can also say, "Well, our ends justify our means." And look at us, and we're torturing people and we're outsourcing torture. The administration is trying to throw journalists in jail and basically trying to replace the whole press crew with ringers, including male escorts. I mean, even Nixon hated the press, but he never tried to
actually do an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" thing with them. So as Tom
has pointed out, it's a Pandora's box. There are good spirits and evil
spirits that we've unleashed.

Sadly, that seems to be the default fall back position for much of Bush’s detractors. Not only does her response fail to cede the obvious, but it replaces an answer with a red herring. Does anyone actually buy the moral absolutism “ends-justify-the-means traps” argument that she regurgitates? Does she actually think that Putin is using our actions to form his own? He wouldn't have clamped down on the Russian press if Bush hadn't done the same here? The episode she alluded to was a recent back and forth between Bush and Putin about freedom of the press. The intercourse was remarkable because it showed just how oblivious Putin was in the Rathergate affair when the Russian president accused Bush of firing the old CBS goat. Putin’s astonishing ignorance could be the subject of a whole other post, but to someone like Dowd, who believes the administration is trying to throw journalists in jail and replacing the press pool with ringers (never miss an opportunity to point out the male escort) Putin’s charge seems perfectly natural. But I digress, the question was whether Bush’s policies have led to the recent rash of elections in the Middle East. And Dowd pleads the fifth.

There may be the rare columnist here or there that might actually admit that Bush’s detractors were wrong and that Bush was right, but on the whole, I think the kind of response we can expect from the usual suspects can be summed up by the following line from Diehl’s piece:

“It also won't be entirely Bush's creation: The tinder for ignition has been
gathering around the stagnant and corrupt autocracies of the Middle East for

And perhaps that’s even too generous for some, because it suggests that Bush had something to do with the recent events and I’m sure that we all know a few people that will simply not let such an assumption stand. I suspect every effort will be taken to shift the credit away from Bush and put it on any other possible contributing factor that presents itself. No doubt squirming will be involved as democrats and leftward pundits adapt to the new reality of an increasingly free Middle East, but it will mainly be detectable to those that supported the war from the beginning. Those that opposed it still wish to live in their remarkably durable bubble that withstood that giant prick of November 2nd and continues withstand the pricks of good news on a repeated basis.

And there’s the cautious optimism set, formerly known as the freedom-is-good-but-inaction-is-better group – like Thomas Friedman. His recent talking point of "tipping points" sounds a little more upbeat that his January 6th take on the elections, which, he thought, would pave the way for an Iraqi civil war. On October 3rd, Friedman wasn’t sure about what was salvageable there. I wish I’d saved all the gloomy columns I’d read from the NYTimes, because many of them treated any positive news with kid gloves. This was good, but….and then a litany of all the bad stuff that could still go wrong. Still, even though it’s getting harder to be pessimistic about Iraq, Friedman is duty bound to remain worried that the tipping points don’t tip the wrong way.

Indeed, in the Middle East playground - as Friday's suicide bomb in Israel
reminds us - tipping points are sometimes more like teeter-totters: one moment
you're riding high and the next minute you're slammed to the ground.
We all recognized the gamble that we took by invading Iraq (including neocons, believe it or not), but what Friedman would rather not say is that any failure puts us back in a place similar to the previous status quo. Very little can emerge out of the old Middle East that is worse than what once was. At worse, we’ll find ourselves in the same position as we did in 9/11 but with a humiliating loss to siphon off any resolve we would have to be successful in the war on terror. But, if we lose, then that resolve never existed in the first place – so what’s the difference?

That means that Americans are divided into two and a half camps. There’s the camp that is forever haunted (or emboldened) by our failures in Vietnam and who believe we can’t win this war. There’s the camp that says we can and will win it. And finally, there’s the half camp that says we need to win but were doing it all wrong. The latter stakes their tent in the “we can’t” camp but refuses to say they live there. No doubt, that explanation is too simplistic to some (like Tom Friedman, I’m sure), but it roughly breaks down that way.

Part of the shortcomings in Friedman’s worldview can be seen in the following:

Thanks to eight million Iraqis defying "you vote, you die" terrorist
threats, Iraq has been reframed from a story about Iraqi "insurgents" trying to
liberate their country from American occupiers and their Iraqi "stooges" to a
story of the overwhelming Iraqi majority trying to build a democracy, with U.S.
help, against the wishes of Iraqi Baathist-fascists and jihadists.

Whereas Friedman may have just seen the story reframed into such terms, I’m sure Iraqis saw the story in the latter terms for quite awhile now. Unbeknownst to Friedman, the big tipping point happened a while back with Bush's decision to change the face of the Middle East. It turns out that that tipping point went the right way and the only reason we are even talking about the recent outbreaks of democracy, whether Shiites will be able to reach out to Sunnis or whether Mubarak is serious about election reform is because Bush made a decision a couple of years ago.

Back in 02’ and 03’ there was one knowable tangent regarding action in Iraq and that was this: opponents to the war will never fully acknowledge it as a success. For those of us on the right who are waiting for a “I told you so” moment, we will only be frustrated because such a moment will never happen. It wouldn’t have mattered if large caches of WMDs were found or if bin Laden’s cell phone was listed in Saddam’s little black book, the dye was caste when that monkey, Bush, thought he could nation build and no amount of success will justify the death of x number of dead U.S. soldiers. That the mere question would be raised that Bush may have been right, is farther than anything I would have expected. As Noemie Emery recently quoted John Stewart:

"Here's the great fear that I have," said comedian Jon Stewart once the Iraq
elections were over. "What if Bush, the president, ours, has been right about
this all along? I feel that my world view may not sustain itself, and I may, and
again I don't know if I can physically do this, implode."
Sadly, the comedian isn't joking.

1 comment:

Dude said...

While you're waiting for an "I told you so" moment, I'm here waiting for the right to stop rubbing my nose in the results of Nov. 2nd. And I consider myself a moderate, not a lefty.

I can admit I was wrong about the plan to remake the Middle East. If the developments of the last two months continue, it bodes well for the United States.

It should be noted that the adminisration's public case leading up to the war was not to bring freedom to the Iraqis, but the imminent threat of WMD's. That says that fear is a stronger idea for the average American than sharing the blessings of liberty.

Excuse me if having once been through the President's bait-and-switch, I don't buy his public statements about any other policy. If my leaders can't speak to me truthfully about pursuing a goal, then I won't trust them to have the country's best interests at heart.

A successful remaking of the Middle East does not justify the administration's secrecy in developing an energy policy, turning a surplus into record deficits so that the dollar is weakened, infringing upon the Bill of Rights, creating a new beureacracy (Dept of Homeland Security) just to score a political victory, and lowering environmental standards.

And lastly, the lesson of Iraq for Iran and North Korea was to get your nukes before you get invaded.