Wouldn't it be weird if George W. Bush turned out to be right about Iraq?
Clearly, Bush and his merry band of neocons were wrong about plenty. They were wrong about weapons of mass destruction. They were wrong about Saddam Hussein's alleged, Kleenex-thin connection to 9/11. They were wrong about almost every practical decision they made and every word they said regarding the occupation.
But do you remember what it was that tossed up all those juggling balls of justification in the first place? It was a simple, if immodest, geopolitical calculation: If we could get rid of an increasingly bellicose Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in the heart of the Arab world, that would free the frozen, poison molecules of the authoritarian Middle East and force changes throughout the entire region. And unless you completely discount this past weekend's elections in Iraq, you have to admit: In that core calculation, Team Bush might have been better at math than we thought.
Conversely, when it comes to postwar prognostications, their critics might not have been so smart as they sounded. The critics said that Iraqis wouldn’t embrace democracy. On Sunday—and not for the first time since the invasion—millions of Iraqis defied plausible risk to life and limb in order to cast their votes. (Meanwhile, it bears noting, many of us democracy-defining Americans stay home on Election Day if it rains.)
The critics said that given their age-old ethnic enmities and disparate geographical claims to oil fields and revenues, Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would inevitably split the country in three. That hasn't happened, at least not yet. The critics said that Iraqis, with their Arab-Muslim hearts and minds, would forever fuel the insurgency against the infidel invader—a scenario that did seem to play out for a time, and which, God forbid, could yet revive. But for a long time now, the mind-set that seems to be solidifying in Iraq is that normal, average Arab Muslims like being blown up by abnormal, fanatical Arab Muslims even less than they like being killed, harassed, or generally ruled by the forces of Western occupation.
Don't get me wrong: I am not trying to pretend that Iraq has turned from a bloodbath to a bed of roses. Nor am I suggesting that regional geopolitical success, even if it were assured, would render the war anything but a failure by many measures. The most solid result would not excuse a surfeit of poor or dishonest rationalizations. It wouldn’t put hundreds of billions' worth of war funding back in the U.S. Treasury to be spent, as many would prefer, on programs at home. It wouldn’t restore the life or health of those U.S. soldiers who have been killed or wounded.
Yet, the Middle East being the Middle East, a modest regional success would be no small achievement. Just for the sake of the exercise, let's entertain the notion that rather than poisoning the well, the screw-you diplomatic doctrine of the Bush administration instead cleared the way for the We-Are-the-World approach of Team Obama. Take, for example, the case of Syria, to which the U.S. has recently restored an ambassadorship. Clearly, the Obama administration would like Syria to forswear assistance to the insurgency in Iraq; to lay off Lebanon; to quit threatening Israel via Hezbollah; and to get behind international efforts to rein in Iran, its longtime yet still unlikely ally.
For the U.S. to accomplish any of that, Syria must see more advantage than disadvantage to playing ball with America. Before the war, like it or not, the Iraq with which Syria had to deal was ruled by an increasingly emboldened genocidal autocrat who had set himself up as a latter-day Salhadin, very much in opposition to the West and with teeth gleamingly bared against Israel, the Kurds, and America. After the war, like it or not (and Syria doesn't like it), the Iraq with which Syria has to deal is headed by a democratically elected, U.S.-backed coalition government the collapse of which would send chaos across the border, and the stabilizing of which means a new regional order. Syria would undoubtedly prefer for the game to take place in the dark with nobody in the bleachers—but post-Saddam, it has no choice but to play ball with America.
Yes, it's early. No, we don't know what's going to happen when the U.S. finally withdraws, although it's safe to guess it won't be pretty. Maybe it's too much to hope that Iraqi democracy will get out of all this alive. But maybe it will. Maybe Iraq will emerge as a corrupt, chaotic, compromised democracy, but a functional Arab democracy nonetheless, complete with voters, a free press, and political parties that fight, but not to the death. Before the war, that was a ridiculous pipe dream. As of Sunday, it's looking quite a bit like real life.
Admit it: Ever so faintly, it is beginning to look as if, about this at least, the English-mangling man in Crawford, Texas, might turn out to be right.
If only he hadn't gotten so much else about Iraq so very, very wrong.