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Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine


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Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine

History has begun to speak, and it says that America made the right decision to invade Iraq

Monday, Mar. 07, 2005

Jon Stewart, the sage of Comedy Central, is one of the few to be honest about it. "What if Bush ... has been right about this all along? I feel like my world view will not sustain itself and I may ... implode." Daniel Schorr, another critic of the Bush foreign policy, ventured, a bit more grudgingly, that Bush "may have had it right."

Right on what? That America, using power harnessed to democratic ideals, could begin a transformation of the Arab world from endless tyranny and intolerance to decent governance and democratization. Two years ago, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, I argued in these pages that forcefully deposing Saddam Hussein was, more than anything, about America "coming ashore" to effect a "pan-Arab reformation"--a dangerous, "risky and, yes, arrogant" but necessary attempt to change the very culture of the Middle East, to open its doors to democracy and modernity.

The Administration went ahead with this great project knowing it would be hostage to history. History has begun to speak. Elections in Afghanistan, a historic first. Elections in Iraq, a historic first. Free Palestinian elections producing a moderate leadership, two historic firsts. Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, men only, but still a first. In Egypt, demonstrations for democracy--unheard of in decades--prompting the dictator to announce free contested presidential elections, a historic first.

And now, of course, the most romantic flowering of the spirit America went into the region to foster: the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, in which unarmed civilians, Christian and Muslim alike, brought down the puppet government installed by Syria. There is even the beginning of a breeze in Damascus. More than 140 Syrian intellectuals have signed a public statement defying their government by opposing its occupation of Lebanon.

To what do we attribute this Arab spring? While American (and European) liberal and "realist" critics are seeking some explanation, those a bit closer to the scene don't flinch from the obvious. "It is strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq," Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt explained to David Ignatius of the Washington Post. "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

When Ronald Reagan declared that the unfreedom imposed by communism was simply unsustainable and that it should be not appeased or accommodated, but instead forced--by the power and will of free peoples--into the ash heap of history, he was ridiculed and patronized as a simpleton. Clark Clifford famously called him an amiable dunce. The amiable dunce went on to win the cold war.

Two decades later, another patronized President. Our intellectuals and Middle East "experts" have been telling us that Bush's grand project to democratize the region is the fantasy of a historical illiterate. Faced with the stunning Iraqi election, they went to great lengths to attribute this inconvenient yet undeniable success to the courage of the Iraqi people.

This is all very nice. But this courage was rather dormant before the American invasion. It was America's overthrow of Saddam's republic of fear that gave to the Iraqi people space and air and the very possibility of expressing courage.

Those now waxing rhapsodic about the courage of the natives and the beauty of people power need to ask themselves the obvious question: Why now? It is easy to get sentimental about people power. But people power does not always prevail. Indeed, it rarely prevails. It was crushed in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Tiananmen Square 1989--and Iraq 1991. Matched against tyranny at its point of maximum cruelty, people power is useless.

In the 1991 uprising, tens of thousands of Shi'ites and Kurds were killed by the raw power of Saddam's helicopters and tanks and secret police. What was different this time? No Saddam. The American army had come ashore to disarm and depose him. After the sword, it provided the shield to allow 8 million Iraqis to revel in their first exercise of democratic self-governance.

Why now? Because until now the forces of decency in the region were alone and naked, cynically ignored by an outside world content to deal with their oppressors. Then comes America, not just proclaiming democratic liberation as its overriding foreign policy principle but sacrificing blood and treasure in the service of precisely that principle.

It was not people power that set this in motion. It was American power. People power followed. Which is why the critics of the Bush doctrine take refuge in a second Bush-free explanation. They locate the reason for this astonishing Arab spring, if not in people power from below, then in rot from above. These superannuated dictatorships, we are now told, were fossilized and frail, already wobbly and ready to fall, just waiting to be undone by the slightest challenge.

Interesting. If the rot was always there, why is it that these critics never said so before? They never suggested that we challenge these wobbly despots? In fact, they bitterly denounced the Bush doctrine for presuming to destabilize the region in pursuit of some democratic chimera? They opposed the Bush doctrine precisely because they preferred stability. They warned us darkly that the alternative to the status quo was the seething Arab street--an unruly mob, anarchic, anti-American, pan-Arabist or perhaps Islamist, ignorant of all liberal traditions and ready to rise up against America should it disturb the perfect order of things by "imposing democracy."

Turns out, the critics, liberal and "realist," got the Arab street wrong. In Iraq and Lebanon, the Arab street finally got to speak, and mirabile dictu, it speaks of freedom and dignity. It does not bay for American blood. On the contrary, its leaders now openly point to the American example and American intervention as having provided the opening for this first tentative venture in freedom.

What really changed in the Middle East? The Iraqi elections vindicated the two central propositions of the Bush doctrine. First, that the will to freedom is indeed universal and not the private preserve of Westerners. And second, that American intentions were sincere. Contrary to the cynics, Arab and European and American, the U.S. did not go into Iraq for oil or hegemony, after all, but for liberation--a truth that on Jan. 31 even al-Jazeera had to televise.

This was the critical event because Arabs have had good reason to doubt American sincerity: six decades of U.S. support for Arab dictators, a cynical "realism" that began with F.D.R.'s deal with Ibn Saud and reached its apogee with the 1991 betrayal of the anti-Saddam uprising that Bush 41 had encouraged in Iraq. Today, however, they see a different Bush and a different doctrine. What changed the climate in the Middle East was not just the U.S. invasion and show of arms. It was U.S. determination and staying power, and the refusal of its people last November to turn out a President who rejected an "exit strategy" but pledged instead to remain until Iraqi self-governance was secure.

It took this marriage of power, will and principle to produce the astonishing developments in the Middle East today. This is not to say that this spring cannot be extinguished. Of course it can. The dictators can still strike back, and we may flinch in defense of those they strike. History has yet to yield a verdict on the final outcome. But it has yielded one unmistakable verdict thus far: the idea that Arabs are not fit for or inclined toward freedom--the underlying assumption of those who denounced, ridiculed and otherwise opposed the democracy project--is wrong. Embarrassingly, scandalously, blessedly wrong.

Email the Columnist | Charles Krauthammer's Archive


Charles Krauthammer writes a syndicated column for the Washington Post that appears in more than 125 newspapers worldwide. He writes an essay each month for TIME

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