Since 1945, America's record of participating in the selection of other nations' regimes--from the Italian elections of 1948, to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, to the 1963 coup that killed South Vietnam's President Diem, to the removal of Noriega from Panama--is mixed. Now we are embarked on the promotion of reform throughout a complex region that is resistant to reform.
An Egyptian diplomat once said that Egypt is the only real nation in the Arab world, that the others are just ``tribes with flags.'' Certainly Iraq is a tribal society in which civil war may ignite in the wake of liberating forces. Remember what the thawing of the Cold War meant for Yugoslavia and Chechnya.
In 1915 the young Walter Lippmann wrote, ``When you consider what a mystery the East Side of New York is to the West Side, the business of arranging the world to the satisfaction of the people in it may be seen in something like its true proportions.'' But four years later Lippmann was with the American delegation at the Versailles Conference, one handiwork of which was Yugoslavia. A British diplomat at the conference scoffed at the diplomats ``cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.'' One piece of that particular cake became Iraq.
Sometimes American conservatism seems to suggest that freedom is defined merely by the absence of things--particularly, bad government measures. The radical inadequacy of that idea will be clear once Saddam Hussein's regime is destroyed. A free society is a complicated social artifact. It is in no small measure an artifact of government, which must create the laws and foster the mores that sustain markets, including a market for political power through a multiparty system.
The president has put the country on a necessary but problematic path favored by conservatives. Now conservatives should explain why conservatism, with its wariness about uncontrollable contingencies and unintended consequences, suggests that the coming triumphs will be more difficult and less complete than we wish.