"Our own successful three-week war, but their failed three-year peace."
Such a self-serving disclaimer might best sum up the change of heart of several neoconservative former supporters of the Iraq war — at least according to interviews that appear in the current issues of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker magazines.
Some of these pundits and policy gurus now having second and third thoughts had called for the American ouster of Saddam Hussein as early as 1998. These days, apparently in hindsight, they question whether the present plagued occupation even justified the effective three-week war of 2003.
Americans themselves have made the same dramatic about-face. They once approved of the war by a 70 percent majority. Three years later, they think it was a mistake by almost the same wide margin. Like the pundits, the public follows the pulse of the battlefield — which now seems to be reported solely as a story of improvised explosive devices and sectarian suicide bombing.
But forget that "gotcha" Beltway buzz. Instead, let's re-examine the now-orphaned policy of bringing democracy to the Middle East — not the fickle parents who abandoned it. How, in other words, did we get to Iraq?
Taking out Saddam Hussein was not dreamed up — as is sometimes alleged — by sneaky supporters of Israel. Nor did oil-hungry CEOs or Halliburton puppeteers pull strings in the shadows to get us in. And the go-ahead wasn't given merely on the strength of trumped-up fears of weapons of mass destruction: The U.S. Congress authorized the war on 23 diverse counts, from Iraq's violation of the 1991 armistice to its record of giving both money and sanctuary to terrorists.
George W. Bush resolved to democratize Iraq also as a way to confront three grim facts of our recent past.
First, the United States had been far too friendly with atrocious regimes in the Middle East. And when bloodletting inevitably broke out, either internally or between aggressive regimes, too often we cynically played one side off the other. Or we backed repugnant insurgents, with little thought of the "blowback" that would result. We outsourced sophisticated arms and training to radical Islamists fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan government. We hoped the murderous Saddam might check the murderous Iranian theocracy — and then again sold arms to the mullahs during the Iran-Contra affair.
We breezily called for an uprising of Shiites and Kurds only to abandon them to be slaughtered by Saddam after the first Gulf War. We cynically gave the Mubarak dynasty of Egypt billions in protection money to behave. While we thought we were achieving short-term expediency, American policy only increased long-term instability by not pressuring these tyrants to reform failed governments.
Second, at key moments in the 1980s and '90s, the United States signaled that it would appease its terrorist enemies rather than engage in the difficult work of uprooting them. We did little other than file an indictment or shoot a missile at the killers who murdered American citizens, diplomats and soldiers in East Africa, Lebanon, New York City, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Leaving Lebanon, scurrying out of Somalia, and continually flying through Saddam's skies for 12 long years without removing him only cemented the image of an uncertain America.
Third, September 11 changed the way the U.S. looked at the status quo in the Middle East. That attack was the work of terrorists who were enabled by our autocratic clients in the Middle East, and emboldened by our previous inaction. In response, Iraq was an effort to end both the cynical realism and the convenient appeasement of the past — and so to address the much larger problems of the Middle East that, if left alone, could lead to another large-scale terrorist attack in the United States.
Whatever one thinks of our mistakes after Saddam was toppled, those three facts remain central to American foreign policy. Saudi subsidies to jihadists, Pakistani sanctuary for them, and Egyptian propaganda are all symptoms of these dictatorships hedging their bets — hoping their bought terrorists don't turn on them for their own failures and illegitimacy.
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri will still connive to bring the new caliphate to Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. And they won't be stopped by either cruise missiles or court subpoenas, but only by a resolute United States and Middle Eastern societies that elect their own leaders and live with the results.
We can demonize President Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all we want, or wish they presented their views in a kindlier and more artful fashion. We can wish that the United States were better at training Iraqis and killing terrorists to secure Iraq. But the same general mess in the Middle East will still confront Bush's and Rumsfeld's successors.
And long after the present furor over Iraq dies down, the idea of trying to help democratic reformers fight terrorists, and to distance America from failed regimes that are antithetical to our values, simply will not go away.
That tough idealism will stay — because in the end it is the only right and smart thing to do.