June 1, 2003
You’re completely sick of the war — sick of watching cable, sick of reading the paper. The military campaign’s basically been won. The adrenalin is leaving your body. The overwhelming urge is to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to normal life, only more so: normal life minus current events. Yet this is just the moment when it’s probably most important to pay attention to what is going on in the Middle East, because these are the weeks when we will or won’t make the mistakes that will cost us the benefit of all the sacrifice of life and treasure.
That’s why I didn’t take a vacation like Andrew Sullivan, or Bill Quick. (Or, sadly, like Nick Denton). But it’s been a struggle. It’s been made worse by the difficulty of getting a big picture. Yeah, there are lots of media reports suggesting that things aren’t going that well. But they’re mostly from people who were declaring the war a quagmire after 15 minutes, and who peddled the bogus looting stories. Others are from more credible sources, but even those are hard to place in perspective. Europe and Japan looked pretty crappy for quite a while after World War II — ordinary people were putting food on the table via prostitution for quite some time after the war, something now largely forgotten except for vague jokes about nylons and chocolate bars. Things aren’t nearly that bad in Iraq. And in some places they’re quite a bit better. We also faced efforts at subversion by the Russians in Japan and Germany that were far more serious than anything we’re likely to face in Iraq, which is smaller and has — I think — actually got more U.S. troops occupying it per-capita than Japan had in 1946. (I haven’t checked this, but a usually reliable reader emails that fact.)
My waitress at dinner was a Kurd, who reported that relatives in Northern Iraq (she hadn’t been back for a couple of years) say that things are much better since Saddam’s fall. Mark Steyn reports that things look pretty good to him. Phil Carter, meanwhile, is less positive: he has argued pretty persuasively that we had enough troops to win the war, but not enough for the occupation. (He also thinks we’ll see Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.)
But as Salam Pax says,
Everyone expected a civil war, but now that’s not happening. Actually, the situation is much better than we imagined before the war… People who before the war sold tomatoes now suddenly offer satellite phones on the open street…
And, actually, even this is probably good news:
One thing is sure: No one is relying on the Americans. No one expects
that they will do anything for us.
Low expectations are better than too-high ones, and self-reliance is better than dependence. I think that this has been a deliberate strategy in the occupation, though we may have overplayed it. On the other hand, Baghdad has free Internet now, via self-help. That’s a good sign, I think. But a too-disengaged approach is likely to breed more resentment than an overbearing one, actually. As Osama says, people (especially Arab people) tend to want to back a strong horse. So it’s important to look strong.
On the broader scale, things look pretty good. We had anti-Al Qaeda demonstrations in Morocco, and Syria seems to be feeling the heat. There have been some signs of self-examination and skepticism toward fundamentalist Islamism even in Saudi Arabia, though the Saudis remain unimpressive on this front. The Iranian mullahs are nervous (though not nervous enough), and — though I remain skeptical — there are some things that could be interpreted as progress with regard to Israel and the Palestinians, though I doubt it will be possible to achieve peace there as long as Arafat is alive. And, over all, Al Qaeda has faced many, many arrests, and we’ve gone over 18 months without a significant Islamic terrorist attack in the United States.
That’s all pretty good news, and far better than we feared in September of 2001. In fact, the big news so far is that things are a lot better than we feared in September 2001.
I certainly agree with Paul Wolfowitz that:
I think the two most important things next are the two most obvious. One is getting post-Saddam Iraq right. Getting it right may take years, but setting the conditions for getting it right in the next six months. The next six months are going to be very important.
The other thing is trying to get some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
I think the two are connected. Getting things right in Iraq is very important, and it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be obvious how things are going overnight. (It’s not obvious how things are going in Russia, and it’s been well over a decade since the end of the Soviet Union). I think it’s very important that we work at it, and I think it’s ironic that some of the people who were critics before the war saying “we’ll just put in a friendly dictator and leave” are now pushing arguments and criticisms that imply just such a course of action when the Administration is obviously committed to something more. We want a peaceful, free and prosperous Iraq. Claims that Arabs are somehow incapable of that sort of thing seem a bit dubious to me, especially when they come from people who call themselves “progressive” — and it’s especially unimpressive when those people say “Iraq is ungovernable” with ill-concealed glee at the prospect of what would be, in practice, a far bigger disaster for the Iraqi people than for George Bush. But they don’t care about the collateral damage if they can see Bush hurt.
As for the Palestinian problem, well, I tend to see that more as a symptom than as a disease — it’s a vehicle for Arab despots to use in distracting their citizens. But denying them that vehicle wouldn’t be such a bad thing. And getting rid of Saddam, both because it undermined Arab fantasies and because it deprived the suicide bombers of a very significant subsidy, can only help that.
So overall, I’d say that it’s too early to say how well things are going, but that things in general look pretty good. And though there are predictions of doom aplenty, it’s worth remembering that the doom-predictors have a pretty lousy record so far.
I think, though, that both Iraq and Israel are currently tests for the Arabs. If they can’t achieve a reasonable degree of peace and freedom here, if they sink back into theocracy and thuggery, then it’s going to be easy for the rest of the world to give up on them — as the “progressives” already have — and say “what can you expect from the wogs?” as it turns a blind eye to another generation of dictators’ brutality. I don’t want that, and I don’t think that the Iraqi people, or even the Palestinian people, really do.
UPDATE: Dave Winer has a notably nasty post on this. It begins “Amazingly, Glenn Reynolds is still covering the war,” and then goes on to blast warbloggers. Um, you’d rather I ignored this, Dave? Or do you just not like the way I point out that “progressives” never gave a damn about the Iraqis, and still don’t? I think you’ve proved that, anyway. And probably provided an answer to Marduk’s question for war opponents:
Given the choice which would you prefer:
A. George Bush is proven correct. Peace in Iraq. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush re-elected.
B. George Bush is proven incorrect. No peace in Iraq. No peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush defeated.
The answer to that one is pathetically obvious. “Pheh” right back atcha, Dave.
ANOTHER UPDATE: It’s interesting to contrast the antiwar folks’ self-justifying kvetching with this rather thoughtful post from SgtStryker.com:
After the fireworks are over, people like me are sent out unto the world to do all the hard work in support of peacekeeping and all that mess. It doesn’t make for good TV like war does, but war sells. It’s got death, ‘splosions and all that other cool stuff people like to watch. Peacekeeping, on the other hand, isn’t exciting at all. It’s long, boring and never goes as fast as everyone wants it to. It’s kind of like construction. Those buildings they put up always seem to take forever to build and the work isn’t exactly glamorous. I-beam by I-beam, concrete block by concrete block, these buildings slowly rise from the remains of what was there before and begin to take shape. It’s done right out there in public so everyone walking by can give their take on the whole deal and criticise the design, the materials used or how things would go so much better if everyone just listened to them.
But at the end of the thing, the workers have a sense of accomplishing something solid that’ll remain for while. Everyone always gathers around and watches those dramatic building demolitions. The walls explode, the building collapses into a cloud of dust, people clap and then everyone heads off to the next big thing. It’s a brief, transitory moment of excitement, but that’s about it. Building stuff is a hell of a lot less glamorous then blowing it up, but at least you have something to point to years down the road when someone asks what the hell you were doing all that time. It’s kind of hard to point at nothing, no matter how dazzling its collapse may have been.
That’s what I’m writing about, Dave. Sorry it doesn’t interest you.