Reverse Course

Bush Didn't Squander the World's Sympathy. He Spent It.


Quagmire? Sure, the war in Iraq was a quagmire. It was just a short quagmire. On the spectrum of quagmires, it was the shortest since the Six Day War.

In fairness, the war's critics feared a quagmire not so much during the fight as after, and they had a point. One reason the first Bush administration didn't drive to Baghdad in 1991 was to avoid an American occupation of a major Arab country. And now there we are.

Still, George W. Bush can probably do a better job in Iraq than Saddam Hussein did. The new quagmire is unlikely to be as bad as the old one. The stronger objection to the war invokes not the "Q" word but the "S" one: squander. As in: President Bush won in Iraq, but in the process he has squandered the world's goodwill.

Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential candidate and former Vermont governor, blames Bush for turning the "tidal wave of support and goodwill that engulfed us after the tragedy of 9/11" into "distrust, skepticism, and hostility… It could well take decades to repair the damage." George McGovern accuses Bush of converting "a world of support into a world united against us, with the exception of Tony Blair and one or two others." And so forth.

Poll numbers suggest that America's war in Iraq did indeed come at a very high cost in international support and sympathy. In countries throughout Europe—including Britain, Italy, and Spain, all of whose governments supported the war— public opinion turned sharply against the United States. Favorable ratings of well above 60 percent in many countries declined to the 30s, 20s, and even teens.

In March, on the eve of the American invasion, Ipsos (an international public-opinion research firm) asked people in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Spain whether their government's foreign policy should "get closer to the U.S. or distance itself more from the U.S." In all of those countries except Germany, respondents called for more distance from the United States, usually by large ratios: 63-28 percent in Japan, 60-13 in Spain, 54-38 in Canada, and 52-36 even in the U.K. The Germans split 44-46 percent, hardly a vote of confidence.

Bush's supporters retort that post-9/11 sympathy was ephemeral. At the end of the day, they argue, a strong America will attract more support than a weak one. In any case, France and Russia were determined to play the spoiler; it was the world that squandered America's goodwill, more than the other way around.

Probably, possibly, and maybe. It's all very complicated. But those arguments miss the larger point. The talk of squandering is fundamentally misconceived. Bush did not squander the world's goodwill. He spent it, which is not at all the same thing.

The Cold War was a five-decade confrontation in which the United States often found itself aligned in awkward and even obnoxious ways but remained, through it all, on the right side of history. In the end, the Soviet Union fell not because of Star Wars or glasnost, but because Communism was a dysfunctional system that lost the ability to fool even its friends.

Perhaps the most awkward and obnoxious of America's Cold War alignments were in the Arab world. Washington supported tyrannies and monarchies that wrecked their economies and stunted their politics. The Arab regimes wallowed in corruption and incompetence. They entrenched poverty and blocked middle-class aspirations. They jailed liberal dissidents and political moderates. They fertilized the soil for militant Islamists who provided the only outlet for dissent. They then attempted to neutralize Islamism by diverting its energies to hating liberalism, Americans, and Jews.

In both Iran and Iraq, Washington supported or tolerated corrupt and brutal regimes, with disastrous results in both places. Saudi Arabia has been a different kind of disaster, propagating anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism all over the world. Syria and Libya are disasters. Lebanon is between disasters. Egypt is a disaster waiting to happen. Maybe Jordan is, too.

In short, the United States has been on the wrong side of Arab history for almost five decades, and it is not doing much better than the Soviets. The old policy had no future, only a past. It was a dead policy walking. September 11 was merely the death certificate.

Bush is no sophisticate, but he has the great virtue— not shared by most sophisticates—of knowing a dead policy when he sees one. So he gathered up the world's goodwill and his own political capital, spent the whole bundle on dynamite, and blew the old policy to bits. However things come out in Iraq, the war's larger importance is to leave little choice, going forward, but to put America on the side of Arab reform.

Reform will take years, decades even, and it will mean different things in different countries. In Iraq, it meant force. In Syria, it means hostile prodding; in Saudi Arabia, friendly prodding. It means setting a subversive example for Iran, creating the region's second democracy in Palestine, building on change in Qatar and Kuwait, leading Egypt gently toward multiparty politics. Progress will be fitful, at best. But the direction will be right, for a change.

This is a breathtakingly bold undertaking. The difficulties are staggering. Everything might go wrong. But the crucial point to remember is that everything had already gone wrong. No available policy could justify optimism in the Arab world, but the new policy at least offers hope. It offers a path ahead, a future where there had been only a past. It is not dead. It puts America on the right side of history and on the right side of America.

Much of Europe is alarmed by the change, but then, it would be. American troops in Saudi Arabia guaranteed the flow of oil while turning the United States (along with Israel) into the scapegoat of choice for millions of angry Muslims, some of whom live in Europe. From Paris's or Amsterdam's or Bremen's point of view, what's not to like about that deal? Why must Washington go and stir everything up?

Not long before the Iraq war began, the Heinrich Böll Foundation sponsored a debate in Washington between Richard Perle and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Perle, of course, is a hawkish American neoconservative who supported the Iraq war. Cohn-Bendit, a Frenchman, leads the Green faction of the European Parliament, but is perhaps better known as "Danny the Red" for leading student uprisings in France in the 1960s. In a telling moment, Cohn-Bendit blurted out that Perle, the conservative, was now the revolutionary, trying to reform the whole Arab world—whereas Cohn-Bendit, the former radical, was now the conservative.

"Suddenly you want to bring democracy to the world," Cohn-Bendit said. "Recently, your government has been behaving like the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. You want to change the whole world. Like them, you claim that history will show that truth is on your side." Savoring the irony, Danny the Red accused America of "revolutionary hubris."

He was right about "revolutionary," though the administration would prefer a gradual revolution. But "hubris"? Not exactly. The effort to reshape the Arab world would indeed seem hopelessly overweening but for the fact that the old policy had already collapsed beneath America's feet. It had also collapsed beneath the Arab world's feet. The question is whether the fall of Baghdad might be the sort of wake-up call for Arabs that September 11 was for Americans.

On April 14, The Washington Post rounded up some examples of what it aptly called "fear and rethinking in the Middle East"—there being plenty of both. "With the fall of Baghdad," wrote Shafeeq Ghabra, the president of the American University of Kuwait, in Lebanon's online Daily Star, "Arab thought as we knew it since the 1967 defeat collapsed. The nationalism that misled Saddam and our peoples has also collapsed, as well as a pattern of Arabism many of us exploited in favor of autocracy, oppression, dictatorship, and the confiscation of other people's rights."

Abdul Hamid Ahmad, the editor of a United Arab Emirates-based Web site called Gulf News, wrote, "With the stunning and shameful collapse of the Iraqi regime and its Baathist reign, another Arab era has vanished…. And a stark reality was revealed: that these institutions were virtual phantoms as far as the people were concerned." Single-party monopolies "only lead to the suffocation of people, politically and socially."

Just straws in the breeze, those opinions; but at least now there is a breeze. Spending the world's goodwill on reform in the Arab world is the most dangerous course the Bush administration could have set, except for all the others.