"Forty-five dead - that's not peanuts," veteran journalist Donatella Lorch told the Washington Post, referring to the number of casualties in the wake of the Iraqi elections. "If that had happened in the United States on Election Day, we would have made it a major scandal. Now we're acting like in Iraq it's a great success. We seem to have become numb to the daily car bombs and daily attacks."
Yes, that's true. If in fact 45 people were killed on their way to the polls in America, it would be a "major scandal." Who can argue with that? In the "Well, duh!" department, Ms. Lorch's comment ranks just a few notches below the illuminating observation that bears habitually use our national forests to go potty.
Of course we all recoil at the murderous attacks last Sunday. But that's a point about trees. The forest is over here: Roughly 8 million Iraqis went to the polls - largely on foot - to vote in the face of very, very credible threats that their children would be murdered, their families slaughtered, their homes blown up if they did so. By this one act, they robbed the insurgents of any claim to be the "authentic voice" of Iraq. Their motives for voting were no doubt a mix of the parochial and the idealistic, but one overriding reason they voted was that they could. And they could for only one reason: The United States and its allies had toppled Saddam and had stayed put to prevent a civil war and foster democracy.
A foreign policy realist might have said, "Oops, no WMDs" - and then bugged out. We called Saddam's bluff, which was our perfect right given the stakes, but it's not in our interests to stay. That's realism. And it's funny to hear Ted Kennedy, Michael Moore et al. keep invoking it.
Bush decided to stay partly out of a different realist analysis of our national interest: A democratic Middle East, he believes, is the best chance for stopping the production of terrorists.
But we also stayed as a matter of honor. In the run-up to war, according to Bob Woodward, Colin Powell allegedly coined the "Pottery Barn rule," which holds that if "you break it, you bought it." Saying, in other words, that we'd be obliged to fix Iraq if we broke it. The press loved this phrase because - they believed - it was so pregnant with I-told-you-sos.
Fair enough. But keep two things in mind. First, Iraq was already broken - broken by a madman responsible for unspeakable crimes inside Iraq and out. Second, the Pottery Barn rule is merely a pedantic way of saying that America is honor-bound to fulfill its commitments and act on its ideals. Ted Kennedy and Iraqi Sunnis demand that America fix a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq as if honor is an installment plan one can abandon when it gets too hard.
Bush has another view, which he made clear during the State of the Union: "We are in Iraq to achieve a result: A country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors, and able to defend itself. And when that result is achieved, our men and women serving in Iraq will return home with the honor they have earned."
All of this runs counter to the political headwind Bush has been marching into from the outset of the war. Every setback has been a disaster, proof of a "quagmire" or "imperial hubris." And every success has been greeted by a smug declaration that "this was the easy part" and the "hard part is next." Well, here's some news: It's all been hard. Toppling Hussein was hard. Creating the interim government was hard. Building hospitals, schools and soccer fields: all hard.
All of the sophisticates and cynics insisted that having elections would be a bloody fool's errand. Bush was being too rigid by holding firm on the January elections. Surely a more reasonable man would postpone them since everyone knows they'll be a bloodbath. And then, once they took place, the goalposts were moved again.
Consider Juan Cole. You probably haven't heard of him, but he's the dashboard saint of lefty Middle East experts. President-elect of the Middle East Studies Association, Cole has made a new career for himself in finding the dark lining of every silver cloud. After the Iraqi elections he harrumphed on his Web site that he was "appalled" by the media's cheerleading of the election. He absurdly declared that the 1997 Iranian elections were much more democratic (Iranian candidates had to be approved by the mullahs). He whined that Bush did not originally intend to have elections of this sort and only agreed when Ayatollah Sistani insisted. Suddenly, Bush the rigid ideologue is too flexible.
Most telling, Cole offered a world-weary sigh that "This thing was more like a referendum than an election."
This observation requires us to reopen the "Well, duh!" list for a new contender. Of course it was more like a referendum. That's the point.