One of my favourite cinematic moments is the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when Reg, aka John Cleese, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea, is trying to whip up anti-Roman sentiment among his team of slightly hesitant commandos.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” he asks. “Well, there’s the aqueduct,” somebody says, thoughtfully. “The sanitation,” says another. “Public order,” offers a third. Reg reluctantly acknowledges that there may have been a couple of benefits. But then steadily, and with increasing enthusiasm, his men reel off a litany of the good things the Romans have wrought with their occupation of the Holy Land.
By the time they’re finished they’re not so sure about the whole insurgency idea after all and an exasperated Reg tries to rally them: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
I can’t help but think of that scene as I watch the contortions of the anti-American hordes in Britain, Europe and even in the US itself in response to the remarkable events that are unfolding in the real Middle East today.
Little more than three years after US forces, backed by their faithful British allies, set foot in Afghanistan, the entire historical dynamic of this blighted region has already shifted.
Ignoring, fortunately, the assault from clever world opinion on America’s motives, its credibility and its ambitions, the Bush Administration set out not only to eliminate immediate threats but also to remake the Middle East. In the last month, the pace of progress has accelerated, and from Beirut to Kabul.
Confronted with this awkward turn of events, Reg’s angry successors are asking their cohorts: “What have the Americans ever done for us?” “Well, they did get rid of the Taleban in Afghanistan. ’Orrible bunch, they were.”
“All right, the Taleban, I grant you.”
“Then there was Iraq. Knocked off one of the nastiest dictators who ever lived and gave the whole nation a chance to pick its own rulers.”
“Yeah, all right. Fair enough. I didn’t like Saddam.”
“Libya gave up its nuclear weapons.”
“And then there’s Syria. Thousands of people on the streets of Lebanon. Syrians look like they’re pulling out.”
“I just heard Egypt’s going to hold free presidential elections for the first time. And Saudi Arabia just held elections too.”
“The Palestinians and the Israelis are talking again and they say there’s a real chance of peace this time.”
“All right, all right. But apart from liberating 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan, undermining dictatorships throughout the Arab world, spreading freedom and self-determination in the broader Middle East and moving the Palestinians and the Israelis towards a real chance of ending their centuries-long war, what have the Americans ever done for us?”
It’s too early, in fairness, to claim complete victory in the American-led struggle to bring peace through democratic transformation of the region. Despite the temptation to crow, we must remember that this is not Berlin 1989. There will surely be challenging times ahead in Iraq, Iran, in the West Bank and elsewhere. The enemies of democratic revolution — all the terrorists and Baathists, the sheikhs, the mullahs and the monarchs — are not going to give up without a fight.
But something very important is happening now, something that will be very hard to stop. And, although not all of it can be directly attributed to the US strategy in the region, can anyone seriously argue that it would have happened without it? Neither is it true, as some have tried to argue, that all of this is merely some unintended consequence of an immoral and misconceived war in Iraq.
It was always the express goal of the Bush Administration to change the regime in Baghdad, precisely because of the opportunities for democracy it would open up in the rest of the Arab world. George Bush understands the simple but historically demonstrable thesis that freedom is not only the most basic of human rights, but also the best way to ensure that nations do not go to war with each other.
In a speech one month before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, Mr Bush laid out the strategy: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life.”
I doubt that anybody, even the most prescient in the Bush Administration or at 10 Downing Street, thought the progress we are now seeing would come as quickly as it has.
But what was clear to the bold foreign policy strategists in Washington was that the status quo that existed before September 11 could no longer be tolerated. Much of the Muslim world represented decay and stagnation, and bred anger and resentment. That was the root cause of the terrorism that had attacked America with increasing ferocity between 1969 and 2001.
America’s critics craved stability in the Middle East. Don’t rock the boat, they said. But to the US this stability was that of the mass grave; the calm was the eerie quiet that precedes the detonation of the suicide bomb. The boat was holed and listing viciously.
As a foreign policy thinker close to the Administration put it to me, in the weeks before the Iraq war two years ago: “Shake it and see. That’s what we are going to do.” The US couldn’t be certain of the outcome, but it could be sure that whatever happened would be better than the status quo.
And so America, the revolutionary power, plunged in and shook the region to its foundations. And it is already liking what it sees.