Ide­al­ism that led us to Iraq won’t go away

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

“Our own suc­cess­ful three-week war, but their failed three-year peace.” Such a self-serv­ing dis­claimer might best sum up the change of heart of sev­eral neo­con­ser­va­tive for­mer sup­port­ers of the Iraq war — at least ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views that ap­pear in the cur­rent is­sues of Van­ity Fair and the New Yorker mag­a­zines.

Some of th­ese pun­dits and pol­icy gu­rus now hav­ing sec­ond and third thoughts had called for the Amer­i­can ouster of Sad­dam Hus­sein as early as 1998. Th­ese days, ap­par­ently in hind­sight, they ques­tion whether the present plagued oc­cu­pa­tion even jus­ti­fied the ef­fec­tive three-week war of 2003.

Amer­i­cans them­selves have made the same dra­matic about­face. They once ap­proved of the war by a 70 per­cent ma­jor­ity. Three years later, they think it was a mis­take by al­most the same wide mar­gin. Like the pun­dits, the pub­lic fol­lows the pulse of the bat­tle­field — which now seems to be re­ported solely as a story of im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices and sec­tar­ian sui­cide bomb­ing.

But for­get that “gotcha” Belt­way buzz. In­stead, let’s re-ex­am­ine the now-or­phaned pol­icy of bring­ing democ­racy to the Mid­dle East — not the fickle par­ents who aban­doned it. How, in other words, did we get to Iraq?

Tak­ing out Sad­dam Hus­sein was not dreamed up — as is some­times al­leged — by sneaky sup­port­ers of Is­rael. Nor did oil-hun­gry chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers or Hal­libur­ton pup­peteers pull strings in the shad­ows to get us in. And the goa­head wasn’t given merely on the strength of trumped-up fears of weapons of mass de­struc­tion: The U.S. Congress au­tho­rized the war on 23 di­verse counts, from Iraq’s vi­o­la­tion of the 1991 ar­mistice to its record of giv­ing both money and sanc­tu­ary to ter­ror­ists.

Ge­orge W. Bush re­solved to de­moc­ra­tize Iraq also as a way to con­front three grim facts of our re­cent past.

(1) The United States had been far too friendly with atro­cious regimes in the Mid­dle East. And when blood­let­ting in­evitably broke out, ei­ther in­ter­nally or be­tween ag­gres­sive regimes, too of­ten we cyn­i­cally played one side off the other. Or we backed re­pug­nant in­sur­gents, with lit­tle thought of the “blow­back” that would re­sult. We out­sourced so­phis­ti­cated arms and train­ing to rad­i­cal Is­lamists fight­ing against the Soviet-backed Afghan gov­ern­ment. We hoped the mur­der­ous Sad­dam might check the mur­der­ous Ira­nian theoc­racy — and then again sold arms to the mul­lahs dur­ing the Iran-Con­tra af­fair.

We breezily called for an up­ris­ing of Shi’ites and Kurds only to aban­don them to be slaugh­tered by Sad­dam af­ter the first Gulf war. We cyn­i­cally gave the Mubarak dy­nasty of Egypt bil­lions in pro­tec­tion money to be­have. While we thought we were achiev­ing short-term expe- di­ency, Amer­i­can pol­icy only in­creased long-term in­sta­bil­ity by not pres­sur­ing th­ese tyrants to re­form failed gov­ern­ments.

(2) At key mo­ments in the 1980s and ‘90s, the United States sig­naled it would ap­pease its ter­ror­ist en­e­mies rather than en­gage in the dif­fi­cult work of up­root­ing them. We did lit­tle other than file an in­dict­ment or shoot a mis­sile at the killers who mur­dered Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, diplo­mats and sol­diers in East Africa, Le­banon, New York City, Saudi Ara- bia and Ye­men. Leav­ing Le­banon, scur­ry­ing out of So­ma­lia, and con­tin­u­ally fly­ing through Sad­dam’s skies for 12 long years with­out re­mov­ing him only ce­mented the im­age of an un­cer­tain Amer­ica.

(3) The ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001, changed how the U.S. looked at the Mid­dle East sta­tus quo. That at­tack was the work of ter­ror­ists en­abled by our au­to­cratic clients in the Mid­dle East and em­bold­ened by our pre­vi­ous in­ac­tion. In re­sponse, Iraq was an ef­fort to end both the cyn­i­cal re­al­ism and the con­ve­nient ap­pease­ment of the past — and so to ad­dress the much larger prob­lems of the Mid­dle East that, if left alone, could lead to an­other large-scale ter­ror­ist at­tack in the United States.

What­ever one thinks of our mis­takes af­ter Sad­dam was top­pled, those three facts re­main cen­tral to Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy. Saudi sub­si­dies to ji­hadists, Pak­istani sanc­tu­ary for them, and Egyp­tian pro­pa­ganda are all symp­toms of th­ese dic­ta­tor­ships hedg­ing their bets — hop­ing their bought ter­ror­ists don’t turn on them for their own fail­ures and il­le­git­i­macy.

Osama bin Laden and Ay­man alZawahiri will still con­nive to bring the new caliphate to Afghanistan, Iraq and be­yond. And they won’t be stopped by ei­ther cruise mis­siles or court sub­poe­nas, but only by a res­o­lute United States and Mid­dle East­ern so­ci­eties that elect their own lead­ers and live with the re­sults.

We can de­mo­nize Pres­i­dent Bush and for­mer Sec­re­tary of De­fense Don­ald Rums­feld all we want, or wish they pre­sented their views in a kindlier and more art­ful fash­ion. We can wish the United States were bet­ter at train­ing Iraqis and killing ter­ror­ists to se­cure Iraq. But the same gen­eral mess in the Mid­dle East will still con­front Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Rums­feld’s suc­ces­sors.

And long af­ter the present furor over Iraq dies down, the idea of try­ing to help demo­cratic re­form­ers fight ter­ror­ists, and to dis­tance Amer­ica from failed regimes an­ti­thet­i­cal to our val­ues sim­ply will not go away.

That tough ide­al­ism will stay — be­cause, fi­nally, it is the only right and smart thing to do.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist and a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of “A War Like No Other: How the Athe­ni­ans and Spar­tans Fought the Pelo­pon­nesian War.”

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