Opening Argument – Revisiting Iraq, and Rooting For Bush

National Journal

I was guardedly in favor of invading Iraq, because I believed our president’s confident claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his collaboration with Al Qaeda.

As time passed, I came to fear that the invasion had probably been a disastrous mistake — perhaps the worst by any president in my lifetime.

That was after the WMD and the supposed Qaeda alliance turned out to be intelligence-agency fantasies grossly exaggerated by President Bush and his aides. And after the occupation turned into a blood-soaked disaster. And after many Iraqis who had initially greeted us as liberators switched to wanting us out, or dead. And after the Abu Ghraib photos. And after anti-Americanism soared to unprecedented levels around the world. And after experts confidently assured me that Iraq was doomed to civil war and chaos and would become a haven for terrorists.

I descended into dismay about Bush and his top people. I was driven deeper into it by administration claims of war-on-terrorism presidential powers that can only be called tyrannical: to seize anyone in the world, anywhere in the world; to imprison and interrogate the suspect indefinitely, incommunicado, with no semblance of due process; even (if the president chooses) to torture him. Not to mention Bush’s feckless failure to prevent North Korea from going nuclear, the Guantanamo abuses, the disdain for diplomacy, the irresponsible approach to global warming, the fiscal recklessness, the shifting of tax burdens from the rich to future generations, the swaggering refusal to ever admit error, the smirk, and more.

Now, though, I am rooting for Bush to go down in history as a great president.

That could happen, if his crazy gamble in Iraq pays off. (If it all comes crashing down, which is all too possible, he could be remembered as one of the worst presidents in history.) With the giddy success of the January elections, and with the Bush-promoted fervor for freedom suddenly sweeping through the Mideast, the hopes for a decent government in Iraq and revolutionary change throughout the Arab world no longer seem so forlorn. More and more Bush-bashers — ranging from comedian Jon Stewart to Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, and even to some liberal Democratic senators and supercilious Europeans — are flirting with the heresy that he may just have been right.

How can we not root for Bush to win this campaign for Arab democracy, even if his chances still seem no better than even? And while celebrations are premature, shouldn’t we sometime Bush-bashers — and even the full-time Bush-haters — be prepared to give great credit to him and his neocons, if and when it becomes clear that they have engineered a historic breakthrough?

We could still, of course, assail Bush’s continuing claims of near-dictatorial power. (May the Supreme Court continue to save him, and us, from his worst instincts.) We could still trash the policies that we don’t like. We could still back a good Democratic nominee (if available) in 2008. We could still debate whether Bush is smarter than we thought, or just lucky.

But no matter how shallow, slippery, and smug Bush sometimes seems, if he ends up changing the world for the better, he will be entitled to a presumption of wisdom, even brilliance. Bush’s soaring rhetoric about "ending tyranny in our world" rang hollow to me on January 20, amid all the grim news from Iraq. Then came Iraq’s January 30 elections and the freedom ferment around the region. So when Bush spoke again of ending tyranny in a March 8 speech, the grandeur of his aspirations seemed more in tune with reality. The Arab spring has many causes, of course. But the big one was Bush’s removal of Saddam.

These thoughts are stirred by the cascade of news reports, analyses, and firsthand accounts of the hopeful developments since the Iraqi elections — in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was especially struck by two items that a Bush-doubting friend forwarded to me.

First came a March 5 op-ed in The Valley News, of Lebanon, N.H., by Haviland Smith, a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counter-terrorism staff:

"As one who accepts containment and alliances as the … only way to deal with enemies, I have found President Bush’s implementation of the radical new foreign policy of pre-emptive unilateralism frightening, wrongheaded and doomed…. The primary rationale for the invasion — the threat of weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a farce…"Recently, however, it has become increasingly clear that things are not going as badly in Iraq as I had feared and, to be brutally honest, not as badly as some [Americans] had hoped…. I go to bed at night with the nagging worry that the crazy neocon fathers may conceivably have been right in pushing pre-emptive unilateralism. Have I been stubbornly and stupidly wrong? .."Only history can be the final arbiter of our success or failure. In the meantime, it does seem somewhat unseemly that so many Americans are waging their own battles against a policy that, although a long shot, could radically alter the situation in the Middle East in our favor and deal a major blow to those who would continue to try to do us harm."

Then came a copy of a March 8 e-mail from Iraq, written by Manal Omar, an American of Arab ancestry who is the Iraq director of Women for Women International. Some excerpts: "I wish everyone a wonderful International Women’s Day! … I always use [it] as a time of reflection … I switch back and forth from disappointment to hope to depression to optimism so quickly and frequently that I have developed mental whiplash…"I never imagined it would get as bad as it did…. The months filled of kidnappings and deaths of people close to me, both international and local, left me with an unbearable feeling of being defunct…"But … the Iraqis taught me the most valuable lesson — despair is not a bottomless pit, but hope was — for once a person throws themselves into complete hope, it will provide an endless source of energy. I could not share their hope they felt for the elections…. The Iraqis were determined to prove me wrong — and they did…"Phone call after phone call from throughout Iraq reported the long lines at the voting stations. I was amazed…. One Iraqi wrote, ‘It was such a beautiful experience! It was something amazing watching the crowds walking miles and miles just to get to these boxes and vote. I saw people on wheel chairs, I saw blind people guided by their families, I saw very old people with smiles on their faces…. ‘

"Many explosions in the morning made me … wonder if the elections would have a turn out or not…. The stories of tragedy were balanced with the stories of true heroism…. A security guard at one of the voting centers that noticed a suicide bomber, and sacrificed his own life by tackling the bomber and running with him to minimize the fatalities…"I can’t hold back my own reservations…. For close to two years I have seen too much lipservice, too many smokes and mirrors, too many unfilled promises, and way too many unnecessary deaths to allow myself to fall into the trap of unmonitored hope…. But Iraqis have hope, and Iraqi women are determined to safeguard their rights…"Iraqis did their part, and now the international community must do theirs…. Although we should not ignore mistakes of the past, if we continue to focus on events two years ago, we will miss the very important present; a present that will determine the situation for women for decades to come."

Nearly two years ago, in one of his last articles before he died in a Humvee with American forces racing toward Baghdad, the best and bravest journalist of our time reflected (in The Atlantic Monthly) on the awesome military thrust that he had so fervently championed:

"The argument concerns whether the employment of this almost unfathomable power will be largely for good, leading to the liberation of a tyrannized people and the spread of freedom, or largely for bad, leading to imperialism and colonialism, with a consequent corruption of America’s own values and freedoms. This question is real enough and more: Probably the next hundred years hinges on the answer."

During all the dark days since we lost Michael Kelly, a question has haunted many of his friends. What would Mike think? Somewhere, I now dare hope, Mike is peering into a future that we can only dimly discern, and is thinking that it was worth it.