In September and early October 2001 we were warned that an invasion of Afghanistan was impossible—peaks too high, winter and Ramadan on the way, weak and perfidious allies as bad as the Islamists—and thus that the invasion would result in tens of thousands killed and millions of refugees. Where have all these subversive ankle-biters gone? Apparently into thin air—or to the same refuge of silence as all the Reagan-haters of the 1980s who swore that a nuclear freeze was the only humane policy of dealing with Soviet expansionism.
After the seven-week defeat of the Taliban, these deer-in-the-headlights critics paused and then declared the victory hollow. They said the country had descended into rule by warlords and called the very idea of scheduled voting a laughable notion. We endured them for almost two years. Yet after the recent and mostly smooth elections, Afghanistan has slowly disappeared from the maelstrom of domestic politics, as all those who felt our efforts were not merely impossible but absurd retreated to the shadows to gnash their teeth that Kabul is not yet Carmel. Western feminists, homosexual-rights advocates, and liberal reformists have never in any definitive way expressed appreciation for the Afghan revolution now ongoing in the lives of 26 million formerly captive people. They never will. Instead, Westerners simply now assume that there was never any controversy but rather a general consensus that Afghanistan is a “good thing”—as if the Taliban went into voluntary exile due to occasional censure from the New York Review of Books.
The more ambitious effort to achieve similar results in Iraq is following the same script, despite even more daunting challenges. Fascistic neighbors rightly see elections in Iraq as near fatal to their own bankrupt regimes. Some have oil; others have terrorists; still more, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, have both. Unlike Afghanistan, there is no neutral India or Russia nearby to keep Islamists wary, only the provinces of the ancient caliphate to supply plenty of jihadists to continue the work of September 11. Our mistakes in the reconstruction of Iraq were never properly critiqued as naive and too magnanimous; rather they were decried by the Left as cruel and punitive—as if being too lax was proof of being harsh.
Yet, thanks to the brilliance of the U.S. military and despite the rocky reconstruction and our own election hysteria, there is a good chance that the Iraqi elections can begin a cycle similar to what we see in Afghanistan. And at that point things should get very, very interesting.
Just as the breakdown of a few communist Eastern European states led to a general collapse of Marxism in the East, and the military humiliation in colonial Africa and the Falklands led to democratic renaissance in Iberia and Argentina, and American military efforts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama City brought consensual government to Central America, a reformed Afghanistan and Iraq may prompt what decades of billions of dollars in wasted aid to Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians, the 1991 Gulf War, and 60 years of appeasement of Gulf petrol-sheiks could not: the end of the old sick calculus of Middle East tyrannies blackmailing the United States through past intrigue with the Soviet Union, then threats of oil embargoes and rigged prices, and, most recently, both overt and stealthy support for fundamentalist killers.
Similar efforts to isolate Arafat, encourage the withdrawal from Gaza, and allow the Israelis to proceed with the fence have brought more opportunity to the Middle East than all of Dennis Ross’s shuttles put together, noble and well meant though his futile efforts were. The onus is on the Palestinians now either to turn Gaza into their own republic or give birth to another Lebanon—their call before a globalized audience. They can follow on successful elections and shame the Arab League by being the embryo of consensual government in the Middle East, or coronate yet another thug and terrorist in hopes that again the United States will play a Chamberlain to their once-elected Hitler.
If someone wonders about the enormous task at hand in democratizing the Middle East, he could no worse than ponder the last days of Yasser Arafat: the tawdry fight over his stolen millions; the charade of the First Lady of Palestine barking from a Paris salon; the unwillingness to disclose what really killed the “Tiger” of Ramallah; the gauche snub of obsequious Europeans hovering in the skies over Cairo, preening to pay homage to the late prince of peace; and, of course, the usual street theater of machine guns spraying the air and thousands of males crushing each other to touch the bier of the man who robbed them blind. Try bringing a constitution and open and fair elections to a mess like that.
But that is precisely what the United States was trying to do by removing the Taliban, putting Saddam Hussein on trial, and marginalizing Arafat. Such idealism has been caricatured with every type of slur—from both the radical Left and the paleo-Right—ranging from alleged Likud conspiracies and neocon pipe dreams to secret pipeline deals and plans for a new American imperium in the Middle East shepherded in by the Bush dynasts. In fact, the effort not just to strike back after September 11 but to alter the very landscape in which our enemies operated was the only choice if we wished to end the cruise-missile/bomb-’em-for-a-day cycle of the past 20 years, the ultimate logic of which led to the crater at the World Trade Center.
Oddly, our enemies understand the long-term strategic efforts of the United States far better than do our own dissidents. They know that oil is not under U.S. control but priced at all-time highs and that a post–Cold War America is not propping up despotism anymore but is now the general foe of both theocracies and dictatorships—and the thorn in the side of “moderate” autocracies. An America that is a force for democratic change is a very dangerous foe indeed. Most despots long for the old days of Jimmy Carter’s pious homilies, appeasement of awful dictatorships gussied up as “concern” for “human rights,” and the lure of a Nobel Prize to ensure nights in the Lincoln Bedroom or hours waiting on a dictator’s tarmac.
On the struggle in the Sunni Triangle hinges not just Iraq, but rather the future of the entire Middle East—and it will be decided on the bravery and skill of mostly 20-something American soldiers. If they are successful in crushing and humiliating the fascists there and allowing elections to take hold, then the radical Islamists and their fascistic sponsors will erode away. But if they fail or are called off, then we will see Days of Sorrow that make September 11 look like child’s play.
We are living in historic times, as all the landmarks of the past half century are in the midst of passing away. The old left-wing critique is in shambles—as the United States is proving to be the most radical engine for world democratic change and liberalization of the age, promoting the once dispossessed Shiites, Kurds, and women of the Middle East. A reactionary Old Europe, in concert with the ossified American Leftist elite, unleashed everything within its ample cultural arsenal: novels, plays, and op-ed columns calling for the assassination of President Bush; propaganda documentaries reminiscent of the oeuvre of Pravda or Leni Riefenstahl; and transparent bias passed off as front-page news and lead-ins on the evening network news.
Germany and France threw away their historic special relationships with America, whereas billions in Eastern Europe, India, Russia, China, and Japan either approved of our efforts or at least kept silent. Who would have believed 60 years ago that the great critics of democracy in the Middle East would now be American novelists and European utopians, while Indians, Poles, and Japanese were supporting those who just wanted the chance to vote? Who would have thought that a young U.S. Marine from the suburbs of Topeka battling the Dark Ages in Fallujah—the real humanist—was doing more to aid the planet than all the billions of the United Nations?
Those on the Left who are ignorant of history lectured the Bush administration that democracy has never come as a result of the threat of conflict or outright war—apparently the creation of a democratic United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, Israel, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Serbia, and Afghanistan was proof of the power of mere talk. In contrast, the old realist Right warned that strongmen are our best bet to ensure stability—as if Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been loyal allies with content and stable pro-American citizenries that don’t crash airplanes into our skyscrapers. In truth, George Bush’s radical efforts to cleanse the world of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, bring democracy to the heart of the Arab world, withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia, and isolate Yasser Arafat have been the most risky and humane developments in the Middle East in a century—old-fashioned idealism backed with force in a postmodern age of abject cynicism and nihilism.
Quite literally, we are living in the strangest, most perilous, and unbelievable decade in modern memory.