The world looks safer, friendlier, more hopeful than it did as we approached Christmastime last year.
Then, we were on the defensive, perhaps on the verge of defeat, in Iraq. The Europeans' attempts to persuade Iran to renounce nuclear weapons seemed to have failed. Hugo Chavez was using his near-dictatorial powers and the oil wealth of Venezuela to secure the election of opponents of the American "empire" in Latin America.
Today, things look different. And they suggest, to me at least, that the policies of the Bush administration, pilloried as bankrupt by the Democrats after their victory in congressional elections in November, have served American interests better than most Americans then thought.
Start with Iraq. The surge strategy, opposed by almost all Democrats in Congress and the party's presidential candidates, has clearly worked. Violence has sharply decreased; Iraqi Sunnis have turned against al-Qaida and toward the Shiite-dominated government; bottom-up reconciliation has gone forward in apparently all areas of the country. Polls show that despite minimal coverage in the mainstream media for many months, most Americans are coming to understand that the surge is working.
True, majorities still say that we should not have gone into Iraq in the first place. And George W. Bush's job rating has rebounded only a little, if at all. There is room for criticism of his record: If the surge has been so successful, why didn't he order it some months or even years earlier? But the prospect of a non-dictatorial Iraq, friendly to the United States, growing economically and peaceful enough to nurture civil society, is now within sight -- as it wasn't a year ago.
Then go to Iran. The National Intelligence Estimate unveiled Dec. 3 stated that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program back in 2003. But it also noted, though this didn't make the headlines, that the mullahs' regime is continuing its enrichment of uranium. Uranium enrichment is the single hardest part of making a deliverable nuclear weapon, and the NIE also stated that the mullahs could resume their nuclear weapons program anytime soon.
In the short run, the NIE will probably make it harder for us to persuade Russia and China, and perhaps the Europeans, to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. And it forecloses any possibility of a U.S. military attack, although my own not totally uninformed opinion is that there was no prospect of George W. Bush ordering one in any case. But note the date on which Iran allegedly stopped the weapons program: What happened in 2003? Is it possible that the major military action in Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein, which motivated Muammar Qaddafi to cancel Libya's nuclear weapons program, had the same effect on Iran's mullahs? If so, it was not as much of a blunder as so many Americans thought a year ago.
And then there's Venezuela. Hugo Chavez asked voters to make him president for life and give him the power to seize all private property. They declined by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin. The brave students who monitored voting sites might have prevented him from stealing this referendum.
We can be reasonably sure that Chavez will make more mischief in Latin America and undermine the vibrant democracy of next-door Colombia, and it's possible that by rejecting the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, congressional Democrats will do the latter, as well. But the rejection of Chavez's plan by the people in whose name he claims to speak is a shattering blow to his prestige that will resonate all across Latin America. It will amplify the words King Juan Carlos I, who has done more than anyone else to advance freedom and democracy in Spain and the Spanish-speaking world, addressed to him at a recent conference: "Why don't you just shut up?"
Not all these favorable events are the work of George W. Bush and the United States. Iraqi Sunnis started turning against al-Qaida even before the surge began, the mullahs (assuming the NIE is correct) may have moved partly out of fear that their own people would rise up against them, and the Venezuelans who rejected Chavez's referendum acted without much encouragement from the United States. So if the world does seem safer, American voters might forget that we still have many vicious enemies determined to inflict great harm on us and install a president who believes we can resume the holiday from history we seemed to be enjoying in the 1990s. But as Christmas approaches, we have more to be thankful for than we did this time last year.