I agree with my colleauge Chuck Freund's large point in his Egyptian Improv post: It is unambiguous that the U.S. intervention into Iraq is producing real, tangible results in the Middle East. Critics who fail to acknowledge that are writing themselves out of rational debate on the topic. I say that as someone who was opposed to invading Iraq specifically and most U.S. attempts at nation building, much less region building. And as someone fully aware of continuing violence by insurgents in Iraq.
Beyond the January elections in Iraq (which like earlier ones in Afghanistan were successful beyond even most proponents' wildest dreams), developments in Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine are heartening, to say the least; the fact that Syria is coughing up Saddam henchmen is clearly important, too, though the full import of such behavior is unclear (especially if the Syrians were in fact behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri).
There remain some real theoretical questions about Bush's foreign policy. For instance, even if the intervention is successful in jumpstarting democracy in the region, one might still argue against on grounds of principle, of the ends not justifying the means (especially if any threat Iraq posed to the U.S. was contained). It's a bit churlish to raise such a question right now, I know, but it's a legitimate point, especially given the broad vision sketched by Bush in speeches earlier this year. What might guide future interventions, both in the Middle East and elsewhere?
Arguably more important are questions about defining success when it comes to Middle Eastern policy. However much I hope that liberal democracy actually takes root in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, is that what the intervention was about? The spread of liberalism? Or was it about protecting the U.S. from future terrorist attacks along the lines of 9/11?
Obviously, one argument is that liberal democratic regimes are less likely to conjure up terrorists, but it's far from clear exactly how that theory explains the 9/11 attacks or even al Qaeda or Zarqawi (rumored to be enlisted by bin Laden to commence attacks on targets within the U.S.). As with many Western terrorists who sprang not from the wretched of the earth but from its wealthy, educated elites, the actual damage inflicted in the U.S. didn't come from the dispossessed. If Zarqawi–or whoever–pulls off something on the scale of 9/11 (or even mounts a sustained lower-level campaign with the U.S.), how does that change how we evaluate the Iraq invasion and subsequent events?
Two other questions worth pondering: Are the Islamist terrorists representative of the Middle East (or Islam) in any way, shape, or form? Or are they effectively a suicide cult that will continue its action regardless of larger political shifts in the region(s) that shelter them? Clearly, it has become more difficult as a result of U.S. actions for states to house or protect them. But their various actions–recall the beheading of Nick Berg on the heels of the Abu Ghraib scandal–mark them as psychotics less bent on political change and more on some bizarre self-immolation; I suspect that, far from being the vanguard of anything in the Islamic world, they are the death throes of dying animal. If that's true, political change may have minimal effects on tamping them down until they are destroyed to the last man (even as political change may help make it more difficult to recruit the next generation of terrorist).
Are the early gestures toward democracy or representative government likely to take root? Or, more precisely, it may be the Middle East is getting free from its most obviously despotic regimes, but it's not clear that the opposite of that will be liberal democracy or representative government. It may simply get stuck somewhere along the way. In a similar way, does anyone expect Afghanistan to become fully functioning and self-supporting, or will it always be a marginally free state at best, one constantly in danger of slipping back into some form of autocracy? Will it be success, in other words, if Lebanon, say, is still something of a basket case in a decade (though it might be "our" basket case), which seems to be a very likely outcome?