The shifting terrain of Iraq war - and Muslim opinion

Jonah Goldberg

8/26/2005 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

"Insanity," goes a popular old saw attributed to both Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin (so it must be right), "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

As a corollary, it seems to me that saying the same thing over and over again, regardless of the results, should be a similar kind of crazy.

For the past few years, we've been told (by John Kerry, Howard Dean, and various and sundry editorialists) that George W. Bush has, by fighting the "wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time," "created more terrorists" and "isolated America" by inflaming passions in the Middle East.

Cindy Sheehan has amplified this perspective, calling President Bush, among other things, an "evil maniac" and the world's "biggest terrorist." In the process, she's become a hero to those who see pathos in her protest and a sham to those who see bathos in her stunts.

But as Sheehan's rhetoric exceeds even the heat of the Crawford sun, and as Democrats openly ponder whether she's the visionary who will lead them out of the wilderness, facts on the ground are changing. If the war has created more terrorists and made the world hate us more, why exactly has Muslim and Arab opinion of the United States improved?

According to the massive Pew Global Attitudes Survey, views of the United States have been improving. We're not exactly back to the days when Kuwaiti babies were being named George Bush, but the trends are in our favor. The share of people with a favorable view of America went up in Indonesia by some 23 points, in Lebanon by 15 points, and in Jordan by 16 points. Trends in France, Germany, Russia and India have been moving our way, too.

But the news gets even better. Support for terrorism and Osama Bin Laden has been plummeting across the Arab and Muslim world (save for in Jordan, where the large Palestinian population plays a big role). Support for democracy, meanwhile, has improved. According to Pew, "nearly three-quarters of Moroccans and roughly half of those in Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia see Islamic extremism as a threat to their countries." The share of those supporting suicide bombings and the targeting of civilians has fallen by more than one-third in Lebanon - where democracy is on the move, by the way - and by 16 and 27 points in Pakistan and Morocco, respectively. Similar declines in support for Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaida and the like have been recorded.

No doubt these numbers are imperfect and hardly speak to a single cause. In Indonesia, our generous tsunami relief helped a great deal. In Lebanon, terrorism isn't just something that happens to Israelis and Americans - it's something that could snuff out the rebirth of democracy there (it's also a reminder of the civil war few wish to return to). And across the Arab world, opinions have been shifted by images of Iraqi "insurgents" slaughtering innocent men, women and children while Americans are trying to build schools and hospitals.

But here in the United States opinions remain fixed. Opponents of the war are convinced that every day we are in Iraq we are making things worse for America and the world. One could certainly argue that we're making things worse for America, in that the war has not gone as well as many of its supporters had hoped or expected. But even if you could prove that the war was a mistake in every way, to say that it never should have happened is not a good argument for abandoning the project. If a man is stabbed in the chest, you don't cure him by simply yanking the knife out. In other words, the old talking points on both sides do not matter anymore.

There is an important lesson for President Bush in all this. The message of his recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars was that we need to "stay the course." That has been his talking point for a very long time. And, in fairness, if your policy is to stay the course, then saying "stay the course" has a certain irrefutable logic to it. But on any long journey, even if the course remains the same the terrain may change.

Much has changed in Iraq. The Iraqi army is progressing, even as bombers target recruiting stations. The marshlands have been restored. There's an enormous car-buying boom in Iraq, which is surely a sign of confidence. Morale - to the consternation of our domestic media - is still very high among American regular troops (less so among National Guardsmen). And, let's not forget, the messy process of constitution-writing is unfolding before our very eyes.

For reasons so imponderable that a cottage industry of West Wing Kremlinologists has sprung up, President Bush seems incapable or unwilling to make his case in light of the new realities. One may stay the course, and cross mountains and valleys. Let's hear less about the destination and more about crossing the mountains and valleys.