How Long, How Long?

Posted: Mar 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Vice President Cheney has a difficult time when required to outline the goals of our engagement in Iraq to the extent that they go further than simply removing a tyrant and disarming his regime. This is the problem he and of course the president will face this summer and fall: to explain how we reconcile what is happening in Iraq with our desire to vouchsafe it democratic rule. That desire is entirely sincere; there is nothing concealed there, no underground takeover of the oil fields, no impositions on the policies adopted by the new Iraqi Governing Council. Our venture there is as innocent as any national expedition in modern history: We went in order to eliminate any capacity to make weapons of mass destruction, and in order to export the blessings of democracy.

But we have not succeeded. Mr. Cheney explained, in his speech at the Reagan Library, that the terrorist goal is to "prevent the rise of a democracy." And he reassured the assembly that, of course, the terrorists would not prevail.

He is saying two things. The first, that George W. Bush and his team would not falter.

We can accept this as correct, insofar as it speaks of Mr. Bush's mind and heart.

But it is not to cavil to remind ourselves of the words of President Lyndon Johnson, spoken in 1965 concerning the Vietnam War: "We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement." What happened in Vietnam is that the whole scene changed, as if gradual illumination had made visible an entirely different set on the stage. The intellectuals solidified in their opposition to the war, our allies began to express doubts, other foreign-policy concerns took center stage: and we pulled out.

Nothing that protracted needs to happen in order to effectively halt our armed determination to bring democracy to Iraq. We need only two things. 1) An assertion by Democratic candidate John Kerry that, if he is elected, he will find a means of terminating the military enterprise in Iraq; followed 2) by his victory in November.

This last, of course, can't be achieved without the complicity of a majority of American voters. But that is not inconceivable. Mr. Cheney said, "By helping nations to build the institutions of freedom, and turning the energies of men and women away from violence, we not only make that region more peaceful, we add to the security of our own region." That is unquestionably true. As historians point out, democracies do not engage in aggressive wars.

But Donald Rumsfeld himself wondered more or less out loud last fall whether we could be confident that we were killing terrorists faster than they were being generated. We like to think we are making progress. Mr. Cheney speaks of all the men we have shot and captured. But what is unambiguously true is that terrorist advances in technology tend to equalize their resources and those of the armies of liberation. Terrorists can now detonate from a fair distance blockbuster-dimension bombs in sites that could not reasonably have been anticipated as likely targets of the enemy. Who would have thought to protect a commuter train in Madrid, or a middle-level hotel in Baghdad? Or, for that matter, the twin towers of Manhattan?

It is right that we should proclaim the goal of bringing democracy to Iraq, but it is presumptuous to suppose that that alone will bring ordered freedom. Democracy spoke abruptly in Spain on the matter of concerted efforts to effect regime change in Iraq. Democracy just doesn't work, much of the time.

Bush vs. Kerry? Looking back on Bush vs. Gore, Professor Joseph Olson of the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, gives us a shrewd perspective. Adding up the counties in the U.S. won by the two candidates, it was Gore 677, Bush 2,434. Taking the population of those counties, it was 143 million for Bush, 127 million for Gore. In square miles of land won, Gore 580,000, Bush 2,427,000. The murder rate in Gore counties, 13.2 per 100,000 residents, contrasted with 2.1 in the Bush counties.

This tells us how wrong it is to make facile generalities about the workings of democracy. How would the Iraqis themselves vote, if given the option between tranquilization under a Saddam successor, or months and years of terrorism? The United States suffers from the immaterialization of an objectifiable enemy: there is no Berlin, no Tokyo, no enemy fleet. There is just John Stuart Mill.