No doubt President Bush's Whitehall speech will be remembered for its "three pillars" -- Bush's metaphorical framework for the peace and security of free nations. Maybe more significant, however, are the two "Ifs."
If No. 1: "If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and anger and violence for export," Bush said. "As we saw in the ruins of two towers, no distance on the map will protect our lives and way of life."
If No. 2: "If the greater Middle East joins the democratic revolution that has reached much of the world, the lives of millions in that region will be bettered, and a trend of conflict and fear will be ended at its source."
The two "Ifs" take us to a crossroads, staring down uncharted paths through what I take to be our relationship with the Islamic world. After all, the only non-Islamic country in the Middle East, Israel, long ago joined the "democratic revolution" Bush invoked. (The president himself indicated the Islamic-ness of his two conditions when, soon after stating them, he noted, critically, "We're told that Islam is somehow inconsistent with a democratic culture.")
If No. 2, obviously, is the preferred destination for all nations resting on Bush's three pillars. But how to get there from here, and how to avoid the blind alleys along the way?
According to Bush, "the most helpful" action "is to change our own thinking" -- namely, to change what he called "a certain skepticism about the capacity or even the desire of Middle Eastern peoples for self-government." As he put it, "It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty. It is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it."
This rather muscular line drew applause, bulging as it does with an infectious vigor. Still, as someone unconvinced that Islam is consistent with "democratic culture" -- if democratic culture includes freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and equality of men and women before the law -- I would say the concern is not so much that "Middle Eastern peoples" are incapable of self-government, but rather that the governments they would likely form would little resemble the kinds of democracies that now coexist, finally, in peace and relative harmony.