Paul Greenberg

What's wrong with George W. Bush? Doesn't he know America has already been defeated in Iraq? Doesn't he read The New York Times? Doesn't he listen to NPR?

As the gory pictures and sobering casualty counts continue to arrive from Iraq - and Afghanistan, too - this president has sunk almost as low in the polls as Harry Truman did during the last, grinding months of the Korean War.

Then, too, nobody who was anybody in the American establishment, or who hoped to be, could muster much hope for the American cause. How can George W. Bush ignore what is equally obvious today? Doesn't he know the war is lost - and has been lost for some time?

Apparently not. Because instead of throwing in the towel, the president showed up Wednesday in Kansas City to defend his views before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. You wouldn't call it a fighting speech like the ones an always-scrappy Harry Truman could be counted on to deliver - no matter what the crisis at hand. It was more like one of those Fireside Chats favored by FDR when the news was not the best, and the country hungered for hope.

This president, too, sounded resolute but thoughtful. He was taking the long view, maybe because the short one is so dismal. Which means he had recourse to history. That meant historical analogies, which, even when they are debatable, lend a certain perspective to an otherwise overwhelming present.

Our cause is hopeless, we're told, for the peoples of the Middle East are congenitally incapable of what we in the West think of as freedom. Liberty, it's explained, is a culturally determined quality, and it's futile to think it can ever take solid roots in those inhospitable climes. Does the argument sound familiar? It will to any student of modern American history. As critics of American foreign policy once warned us, democracy would never work in a country like Japan - or in South Korea, either.

Those critics included the usual phalanx of learned experts - the kind that still populate the diplomatic corps and academic halls, the Brent Scrowcrofts of their day. To quote Joseph C. Grew, the former American ambassador to Japan who was Harry Truman's under-secretary of state, "democracy in Japan would never work."

Well, we now know how expert the experts proved: Japan is not only a thriving democracy today, but one of our strongest allies. The jeremiads of the "realists" proved unrealistic.

Analogies are dangerous; they can be stretched too far. Japan is not in the Middle East. (You'll find my geography impeccable.) Nor is it Middle Eastern in culture or history or in much of any other way.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.