If the world that Democrats have been living in lately were made into a reality disaster show, it would be called "When Good News Strikes."
One of the inconveniences of political debate is that occasionally reality intrudes to invalidate a given position no matter how much its partisans want to believe it. This is what has been happening recently to the argument that the invasion of Iraq produced an irrecoverable mess. Although surely setbacks still await us in Iraq and the Middle East, stunning headlines from the region have left many liberals perversely glum about upbeat news.
Schadenfreude has faded into its happiness-hating opposite, gluckschmerz. Liberal journalist Kurt Andersen has written in New York magazine of the guilty "pleasure liberals took in bad news from Iraq, which seemed sure to hurt the administration." According to Andersen, the successful Iraqi elections changed the mood. For Bush critics, this inspiring event was "unexpectedly unsettling," since they so "hat[ed] the idea of a victory presided over by the Bush team."
The legendary liberal editor Charlie Peters confessed to his own attack of gluckschmerz: "New York Post columnist John Podhoretz asked liberals: 'Did you momentarily feel a rush of disappointment [at the news of the Jan. 30 Iraq election] because you knew, you just knew, that this was going to redound to the credit of George W. Bush?' I plead guilty ..."
On his show the other night, comedian Jon Stewart -- half-jokingly -- expressed a feeling of dread at the changes in the Middle East and the credit President Bush will get for them. "Oh my God!" he said. "He's gonna be a great -- pretty soon, Republicans are gonna be like, 'Reagan was nothing compared to this guy.' Like, my kid's gonna go to a high school named after him, I just know it." Stewart is badly in need of the consolation of a yet-to-be-written pop theological tract, "When Good Things Happen to Bad Presidents."
The Democratic foreign-policy expert who was Stewart's guest that night, Nancy Soderberg, tried to comfort him, pointing out that the budding democratic revolution in the Middle East still might fail: "There's always hope that this might not work." There is historical precedent for that, of course. Liberal revolutions stalled out in Europe in 1848 and Eastern Europe in 1968. What is an entirely new phenomenon is liberals calling such reverses for human freedom -- half-jokingly or not -- occasions for "hope."
Soderberg added: "There's still Iran and North Korea, don't forget. There's hope." The way Bogart and Bergman "will always have Paris," liberals now tell themselves they "will always have Iran and North Korea." No matter the good news anywhere else, these nuke-hungry rogue states will provide grounds for bad-mouthing Bush foreign policy. But these two intractable problems won't seriously detract from Bush's world-changing accomplishment should he succeed in transforming the Middle East.
Some liberals are reluctantly giving him his due. The New York Times surveyed the fresh air sweeping the region and concluded, "The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit." Liberal commentator Daniel Schorr remarked: "During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush said that 'a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region.' He may have had it right."
Has the administration gotten a few fortunate breaks in the Middle East lately? Well, yes. Asked how he seemed to make so many lucky saves, the great Montreal Canadien goalie Ken Dryden explained that it was his job to be in the right position to get lucky. By toppling Saddam Hussein and insisting on elections in Iraq, while emphasizing the power of freedom, Bush has put the United States in the right position to encourage and take advantage of democratic irruptions in the region.
And so we have created the conditions for being pleasantly surprised by the positive drift of events in the Middle East, or unpleasantly surprised -- depending on your politics.