When President Bush addressed the nation on Sept. 11, he recalled the worldview that emerged to him five years ago from the hot ashen murk of Ground Zero.
Back then, he said, "we resolved that we would go on the offensive against our enemies, and we would not distinguish between the terrorists and those who harbor or support them."
That world view was black and white -- you're with us, or you're against us -- perfectly matched to an epochal war against jihad terrorism.
Listening to his speech this week, I realize the president's basic outlook hasn't changed. He still sees the war in the same stark tones. He looks at the overthrow of the Taliban five years ago and sees Taliban, black, overthrow, white. He looks at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein three years ago and sees Hussein, black, overthrow, white. So do I. He looks at the ongoing war in Iraq in black and white: Sunni-dominated insurgency, black, Shiite-dominated democracy, white.
Hmm. That's where his palette clashes with mine. It's hard to see a white hat, for example, atop the black-turbanned head of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite guerilla fighter, who, even as he is accused of operating death squads and battling American and Iraqi troops, leads the faction that holds more seats than any other in Iraq's parliament and controls four ministries. Indeed, as one observer put it to The Washington Post, it is difficult for the United States "dealing" with the popular al-Sadr "without undermining (Prime Minister Nouri al-) Maliki's government that relies on him."
Then there's the Sunni side of Iraq. There, Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists are described in a recent intelligence report as being nothing less than an "integral part of the social fabric."
It's not that this mottled reality is better expressed in a more "nuanced" spectrum of "complex" grey -- usually just a metaphor for inaction or retreat. But there's something half-blind about looking at Iraq and seeing forces of evil to one side ("the insurgency") and all sweetness and light to the other. Iraq may be, as we are continually reminded, a young democracy, but its constitution enshrines sharia, and its parliament, among other things, unanimously condemned Israel in its war against Hezbollah -- neither of which fits the presidential color scheme.
"Al Qaeda and other extremists from across the world have come to stop the rise of a free society in the heart of the Middle East," the president said -- "extremists," black, "free society," white. Al Qaeda & Co. aside, constitutionally mandated sharia will stop a free society every time. But never mind. Our plan, he said, is "to ensure that a democratic Iraq succeeds." He continued: "If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened; they will gain a new safe haven; they will use Iraq's resources to fuel their extremist movement."
But what if we don't yield Iraq to men like bin Laden? Does Iraq become, as the president predicts," a free nation, and a strong ally in the war on terror" -- in other words, as pure as driven, er, sand?
It's worth pondering the blackness and whiteness of Iraq's possibilities around the 9/11 anniversary, particularly as Iraq's prime minister was simultaneously making his first state visit to Iran -- blackest black, no? There, ardent declarations of brotherly love and neighborly cooperation from the Jew-hating Iranian president and the Hezbollah-tolerant Iraqi prime minister came out more purple than anything else.
But such disquieting cosiness -- quite natural, given Mr. Maliki's longstanding, Shiite and Iranian ties -- raises an alarming question: What if we defeat Sunni-dominated "extremists" only to make Iraq safe for Iranian Shiite "extremists"? Far from being a question of black and white, Iraq's future could well come down to a choice between black ... and black.
The president believes "the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad." Examining the chronically overlooked reality on the ground makes it difficult to agree. Yes, the safety of America depended on going to Iraq; and yes, the safety of America probably depends on staying in Iraq -- but not to force the freedoms of the West onto a culture, which any way you cut it, is reverting to Islamic law. This isn't to say we don't have a do-or-die mission in the region. We do, and I'll put it in black and white: It is to stop the corrosive spread of Islamic law, through violent terrorism and peaceful immigration, into the West.