Changing minds

Michael Barone
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Posted: Feb 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Nearly two years ago, I wrote that the liberation of Iraq was changing minds in the Middle East. Before March 2003, the authoritarian regimes and media elites of the Middle East focused the discontents of their people on the United States and Israel. I thought the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime was directing their minds to a different question -- how to build a decent government and a decent society.

 I think I overestimated how much progress was being made at the time. But the spectacle of 8 million Iraqis braving terrorists to vote on Jan. 30 seems to have moved things up to be changing minds now at breakneck speed.

 Evidence abounds. Consider what is happening in Lebanon, long under Syrian control, in response to the assassination, almost certainly by Syrian agents, of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Protesters have taken to the streets day after day, demanding Syrian withdrawal.

 The Washington Post's David Ignatius, who covered Lebanon in the 1980s and has kept in touch since, has been skeptical that the Bush administration's policy would change things for the better. But reporting from Beirut last week, he wrote movingly of "the movement for political change that has suddenly coalesced in Lebanon and is slowly gathering force elsewhere in the Arab world."

 Ignatius interviewed Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader long a critic of the United States. Jumblatt's words are striking: "It's is strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

 As Middle East expert Daniel Pipes writes, "For the first time in three decades, Lebanon now seems within reach of regaining its independence."

 Minds are changing in Europe, too. In the left-wing Guardian, Martin Kettle reassures his readers that the Iraq war was "a reckless, provocative, dangerous, lawless piece of unilateral arrogance" -- the usual stuff. "But," he concedes, "it has nevertheless brought forth a desirable outcome which would not have been achieved at all, or so quickly, by the means that the critics advocated, right though they were in most respects."

 Or read Claus Christian Malzahn in Der Spiegel. "Maybe the peoples of Syria, Iraq or Jordan will get the idea in their heads to free themselves from their oppressive regimes just as the East Germans did," he writes. "Just a thought for Old Europe to chew on: Bush might be right, just like Reagan was."

 And minds are changing in the United States. On "Nightline," The New York Times' Thomas Friedman and, with caveats, The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell agreed that the Iraqi election was a "tipping point" (the title of one of Gladwell's books) and declined Ted Koppel's invitation to say things could easily tip back the other way.

 In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Yale's John Lewis Gaddis credited George W. Bush with "the most sweeping of U.S. grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt," criticized Bush's implementation of that strategy in measured tones and called for a "renewed strategic bipartisanship."

 One Democrat so inclined is the party's most likely 2008 nominee, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. She voted for the Iraq war and has not wavered in her support -- she avoided voting for the $87 billion before voting against it. She has kept clear of the Michael Moore left and its shrill denunciations of Bush and has kept her criticisms well within the bounds of normal partisan discourse.

 "Where we stand right now, there can be no doubt that it is not in America's interests for the Iraqi government, the experiment in freedom and democracy, to fail," she said on "Meet the Press" on Feb. 20. "So I hope that Americans understand that and that we will have as united a front as is possible in our country at this time to keep our troops safe, make sure they have everything they need and try to support this new Iraqi government."

 Moveon.org may want to keep shrieking about weapons of mass destruction, but Clinton is moving on.

 George W. Bush gambled that actions can change minds. So far, he's winning.