SITKA, Alaska - It's a small paradox of the war in Iraq. As support for the war inches up (according to a New York Times poll that so shocked the editors they demanded it be retaken), as the surge proves ever more encouraging and as Gen. David Petraeus's confidence grows, enthusiasm for the democracy project in Iraq wanes.
If you canvass conservative supporters of the war, you'll find a level of creeping sobriety when it comes to the possibilities for Iraq. There's no more talk about "draining the swamp" and bringing freedom to the Middle East.
On a recent panel hosted by National Review on a cruise to Alaska (yes, I'm writing this column from said cruise; what're ya gonna do?), the near total consensus among the invited foreign policy intellectuals was that Western-style democracy in Iraq is a pipe dream. "We could do it," one panelist said. "It would take about 100 years, but we could do it."
Instead, explained a former administration official, America needs to set its sights lower. We need to keep Iraq from becoming a terror sponsor or safe haven for al-Qaida. The best we can hope for, the consensus seemed to be, is a "Jordan-style" Iraq with a moderate, somewhat reliably pro-American regime that will, on occasion, vote with us in the United Nations. What we need in Iraq is a "strong state" that can assert its will domestically. A Jeffersonian democracy on the Euphrates isn't in the cards, most agreed.
In one sense, the idea that the Bush administration ever promised a Jeffersonian democracy is a straw man. For those who cared to listen, the White House always said that its vision for Iraq would have Muslim and Iraqi characteristics. On the other hand, even if you give the administration the benefit of the doubt, its hopes for Iraqi democracy were severely unrealistic. As I've argued before, the administration put the cart before the horse by pushing for democracy first, and law and order second. So I'm sympathetic to a more realistic vision. And, let's be clear, even this toned-down nation-building project is wildly optimistic. The surge could fail or the Democrats could dismantle it.
But there's another problem. If all we need in Iraq is a strong state with a moderately pro-American government, we should all be delighted with the behavior of, say, Saudi Arabia over the last few decades. Saudi Arabia has one of the most pro-American regimes in the region. It largely controls its borders and society, and at least technically, it is not a safe haven for terrorists. Indeed, al-Qaida is chomping at the bit to behead the royal family.