A second draft of history

Posted: Mar 14, 2005 12:00 AM

George W. Bush is standing taller, he speaks with greater confidence and puts the right emphasis on his words. Only the true unbelievers mock his syntax now. This is not the man who climbed out of the fighter in a green flight suit onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln for the perfect photo op.

This George W. looks older, less boyish and with authentic gravitas, and for good reason. He knows that the Kodak moment passes quickly, that good news is subject to an infinite variety of changes, both good and grim, usually unpredictable. Boffo headlines can turn sour overnight.

But even the mainstream media has finally noticed the coconut-cream pie that smacked them in the eye, that there's more to George W. Bush than the Michael Moore caricature. It's the men - and the women - of the Middle East who are exploding with ambition for a better life, but it's George W. who lit the fuse.

Bombs of another kind are still exploding in Iraq, but the elections demonstrated that Iraqis revel in the freedom to vote just like everyone else. Osama bin Laden is still at liberty with the worms and spiders in his dank, dark cave, but the Afghanis are telling us that it was the Americans who gave them hope for the rising generation. The Iraqi minister of women's affairs told reporters the other day in New York: "The children - they know the name of President Bush. They realize the Americans are helping us."

Lebanon is restless, Syria got its walking papers, Egypt is scheduling elections with more than one candidate, and even Saudi Arabia, whose rulers are perhaps more terrified of women than rulers anywhere else in the world, allowed limited municipal elections (albeit with men only voting). Yasser Arafat is dead and the Palestinians are talking to Israelis in an entirely new voice.

If the first draft of history is journalism, we're now into the second draft. "Across the Middle East, a critical mass of events is taking that region in a hopeful new direction," the president told the National Defense University the other day in Washington. "History is moving quickly, and leaders in the Middle East have important choices to make."

What the president has done, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told me in a conversation last week over a Danish and a cup of black coffee, "is to change the conversation, change the parameters. The rhetoric without the policy would not have had this effect." She credits the new direction as coming from "the combination of the president's really strong commitment to democracy, reversing 60 years of Western policy, Democratic and Republican presidential policy, coupled with the belief that the Iraqis could pull off this election . . . and face down the terrorists." She notes that it was the president who stood firm, against firm opposition, that the elections in Iraq could take place on January 30.

The president continues to restate themes he has articulated since his first inaugural address, when he described democracy as "a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations." Then he was referring to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Four years on, he's talking about the Middle East, where the arid climate has been less hospitable to the fruit and flower of freedom. But seeds are sprouting now from soil drenched in generations of blood.

The Middle East, of course, is not Eastern Europe and but for Israel there's no experience with democracy anywhere in the region. "It's an imperfect analogy," to compare the collapse of the Berlin Wall with the changes in the Middle East." Nevertheless, says Condi Rice, "what became possible is different."

Mahmud Abbas is not Thomas Jefferson. The spirit of Patrick Henry has not emerged in Lebanon. Although more than a 140 Syrian intellectuals have protested Syrian troops there and signed a public statement opposing the occupation, these intellectuals are not in the league of our own Founding Fathers. There's no guarantee that Syria will pull all its troops in that country before the May elections. "People power" is unpredictable.

But these are "remarkable times," says Miss Rice. "The hard work is now. The United States has created conditions, but the carrying out of this is going to be the work of local people." In the "Arab spring" we don't need a weatherman to figure out which way the winds are blowing, but the Kodak moment has passed.