How long should we wait before deciding if the Iraq project is a success? And, what is success? Earlier this week, senior Bush officials called for patience on the matter, although they surely know that patience is not America's strong suit. In fact, we are the least patient people in the world. Long, steady, incremental gains is not what we are brought up to admire. Our heroes are soldiers and ball players, not diplomats and gardeners. We like maximum, full bore, explosive action -- followed by glorious victory and exhaustion. (Some nasty Frenchmen even suggest that our lovemaking adheres to that pace.) Every American boy dreams of hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth or a touchdown pass with 10 seconds to go. Few of our sons dream of adjudicating conflict resolutions over several years. When our immigrant ancestors on the East Coast failed to get rich quickly enough, they saddled up, headed West, killed the Indians and grabbed the best land to raise their cattle, their families and their stations in life.
This admirable American characteristic (with apologies to the red Indians we overran) has been compounded (and distorted) with the rise of the baby boomers. The first television-raised generation grafted on to a healthy impatience the similar, but less admirable, traits of short attention spans and the urge to instant gratification. We boomers are now in command as the senior editors and producers in the media, and most of the senior members of government. Even boomer President Bush -- who has famously called himself a patient man (about an hour and a half before ordering our military into combat) -- unadvisedly suggested several weeks ago that the Iraq project could be judged by next November. He and we should not be so impatient. But it is going to be a hard impulse to overcome. We live our lives in fast forward. We buy our food already cooked. We get our Christmas trees already cut. We, too, often make love before we have made friends. We are used to seeing an international crises resolved in an hour on "The West Wing."
The most impatient of us all are the media. Two weeks into the Afghan war they declared a quagmire. In Iraq, they declared a quagmire within days. And now they are declaring nation building a failure after a few months. If they had been covering WWII, they would have declared defeat at Wake Island in 1942 and Kasserine Pass in 1943. A month after the D-Day landing in 1944, with our troops still bogged down in the Belgian hedgerows, they would have declared a quagmire. Nation building would, of course, have been deemed a failure. In the winter of 1946-47, the British were freezing and lacked light in their homes for want of electricity generated from coal, while they suffered by on powdered eggs and a scarcity of vegetables -- and they won the war. In Germany, bridges remained broken, canals clogged and rails twisted. Berliners were still literally starving and freezing to death. After all, the Marshall Plan was not even announced until June 5, 1947, more than two years after the Nazis surrendered. Whether to de-Nazify was never finally decided. We used what Nazis we needed, while punishing others.
Impatience has served us reasonably well in the past, but it could be the death of us now. Because beating Saddam's army is not the end of the war but the beginning of it. The media complain that we have stirred up a hornet's nest of terrorists by going into Iraq. But that's the point. To kill the hornets, one has to go where the hornets are. We have to subdue and transform the Middle East -- or accept it as a permanent breeding ground for terrorism. We have to transform a culture. We have never done such a thing before, but with patience, persistence and an iron will, we might succeed. September 11 should have taught us that we have no choice.
Those who say we should turn over responsibilities to an international set (who are already mentally committed to appeasing the terrorist culture), are impatient not for success, but for a nightmare world of biologically and nuclear armed jihadists. The United Nations, France and the rest will never support going after the terrorists in Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia -- although one way or the other it will take that to be successful. If others want to help, good. But we must keep our fate in our own hands. That will take an untypical American patience. We had best start teaching it to our children -- because success will take that long.