A PROGRESSIVE PRESIDENT: We've been waiting for this speech. Critics of the war in Iraq and a huge change in American foreign policy in the Middle East will no doubt play up the negatives. They will argue that the president is changing the subject from the difficult occuation of Iraq, the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. But the case for war both in Afghanistan and Iraq has always been a complex and varied one, despite the attempts of the cynics to reduce it to one issue (and then blame the administration for simplisme).
The fundamental lesson of 9/11 seems to me to be the following: it was no longer possible for the West to ignore or enable the poisonous and dangerous trends in the Middle East. The combination of autocratic fragility, huge wealth, new technology, and an Islamist ideology modeled on the National Socialism of the past was and is an enormous threat to the world. The odd cruise missile strike; diplomatic initiatives to failed despots; appeasement of terror; and acquiescence in Euro-cynicism about the Arab potential for democracy - all these were made moot by 9/11. They were no longer viable options. We either aggressively engaged or we hunkered down and prayed that a calamity would not at some point strike us all. To its historic credit, the Bush administration resisted its own early isolationist impulses and took the high road. To their eternal shame, the French and Germans, the far rights, the far left, and many (but not all) of the Democrats opted for inaction or a replay of the failed policies of the past. What this president did was radical, progressive, risky.
THE SPEECH: And what he needed to do - as any leader needs to do in wartime - is constantly remind people of the context of the struggle, to bring their attention from the day-by-day exigencies of any war, with its casualties and battles and setbacks, to the bigger picture. We are fighting for the defense of liberty in the world - again. And we are now trying to bring it to the one region and culture which has been untouched by it for so long: the Middle East. Money quote:
In the words of a recent report by Arab scholars, the global wave of democracy has, and I quote, "barely reached the Arab states. They continue this freedom deficit, undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development." This latter is a critical point. Islamism is not a religion. Islam is. Islamism is a political ideology as dangerous and as evil as the totalitarianisms of the past century. It is abetted by tyranny; and requires a huge effort to defeat. What the president said yesterday was the first front in the task of spreading this message across the region. He didn't pull punches. Nor should he have:
The freedom deficit they describe has terrible consequences for the people of the Middle East and for the world.
In many Middle Eastern countries poverty is deep and it is spreading, women lack rights and are denied schooling, whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead.
These are not the failures of a culture or a religion. These are the failures of political and economic doctrines.
Instead of dwelling on past wrongs and blaming others, governments in the Middle East need to confront real problems and serve the true interests of their nations. I particularly liked the following analogy: "As in the defense of Greece in 1947, and later in the Berlin Airlift, the strength and will of free peoples are now being tested before a watching world. And we will meet this test." That's precisely the right way to frame this battle. This isn't a replay of Vietnam. It's a replay of an earlier, nobler war that changed the world for the better. Those are still the stakes today. And we cannot let cynicism or partisanship prevent us from winning the fight.
The good and capable people of the Middle East all deserve responsible leadership. For too long many people in that region have been victims and subjects; they deserve to be active citizens.