"Miracle begets yawn" has been the American reaction to the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan. Before our astonishing success in Afghanistan goes completely down the memory hole, let's recall some very recent history.
For almost a decade before Sept. 11, we did absolutely nothing about Afghanistan. A few cruise missiles hurled into empty tents, followed by expressions of satisfaction about the "message" we had sent. It was, in fact, a message of utter passivity and unseriousness.
Then comes our Pearl Harbor, and the sleeping giant awakens. Within 100 days, al Qaeda is routed and the Taliban overthrown. Then the first election in Afghanistan's history. Now the inauguration of a deeply respected democrat who, upon being sworn in as the legitimate president of his country, thanks America for its liberation.
This in Afghanistan, which only three years ago was not just hostile but untouchable. What do liberals have to say about this singular achievement by the Bush administration? That Afghanistan is growing poppies.
Good grief. This is news? "Afghanistan grows poppies" is the sun rising in the east. "Afghanistan inaugurates democratically elected president" is the sun rising in the west. Afghanistan has always grown poppies. What is President Bush supposed to do? Send 100,000 GIs to eradicate the crop and incite a popular rebellion?
The other complaint is that Karzai really does not rule the whole country. Again, the sun rises in the east. Afghanistan has never had a government that controlled the whole country. It has always had a central government weak by Western standards.
But Afghanistan's decentralized system works. Karzai controls Kabul, most of the major cities and much in between. And he is successfully leveraging his power to gradually extend his authority as he creates entirely new federal institutions and an entirely new military.
Again, what should Bush have done? Send another 100,000 GIs to put down warlords with local roots, local legitimacy and a ton of firepower?
What has happened in Afghanistan is nothing short of a miracle. Who is responsible for it? The New York Times gives the major credit to "the Afghan people" with their "courage and commitment." Courage and commitment there was, but the courage and commitment were curiously imperceptible until this administration conceived a radical war plan, executed it brilliantly, liberated the country and created from scratch the structures of democracy.
The interesting question is: If we succeeded in Afghanistan, why haven't we in Iraq? One would have thought Afghanistan, with its obviously less-developed human and industrial infrastructure, to be far less conducive to democracy. It is more tribal, more primitive and has even less history of modern political development.
Yet that may have been an advantage. Iraq has for decades been exposed to the ideas of political modernism -- fascism and socialism as transmuted through Baathism (heavily influenced by the European political winds of the 1920s and '30s) to which Saddam Hussein added the higher totalitarianism of his hero, Stalin. This history has succeeded in devaluing and delegitimizing secular ideologies, including liberal-democratic ones. In contrast, Afghanistan had suffered under years of appalling theocratic rule, which helped to legitimize the kind of secularist democracy that Karzai represents.
Furthermore, Afghanistan had the ironic advantage of having just come out of a quarter-century of civil war. As in Europe after World War II, the exhaustion that follows is conducive to pursuing power by peaceful political means. In contrast, Iraq's Baathists, fresh from 30 years of unimpeded looting and killing, are quite prepared to ignite a civil war in pursuit of the power and privileges they have lost.
And, finally, Afghanistan's neighbors have largely kept out of the postwar reconstruction. The most powerful and active neighbor, Pakistan, was made an ally in this effort and has supported the democracy project.
Iraq's neighbors are hostile to the United States and to our democratic project. The Baathist insurgents are heavily supported by Syria, from which some of the sheltered leadership provides funding and operational directives for guerrilla actions in Iraq. Behind Syria stands the Arab League, composed mostly of Sunni monarchs and dictators, carrying water for Iraq's Sunni minority, which ruled for 80 years.
On the other side is Iran, funneling money, fighters and, by some reports, even voters (waves of immigrants) to help elect not only a Shiite government but a theocratic Shiite government. As Iraq becomes the cockpit for the regional rivalries, internal divisions are greatly exacerbated.
This does not mean we cannot succeed. It does mean that Iraq will be very difficult. It also means that against all expectations, Afghanistan is the first graduate of the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy in rather hostile places. A success so remarkable and an end so improbable merit at least a moment of celebration.