There’s no denying it: The humiliating capture of Saddam Hussein has reshuffled the cards and created a new political reality, both here at home and on the world stage. Barely a week ago, the invasion of Iraq appeared to have produced little but trouble for America and the Bush administration, and the hawks’ insistence that the war would unleash a new dynamic in the Middle East seemed little more than wishful thinking. Saddam’s arrest has changed that with astonishing swiftness.
No, the dictator’s arrest has not swept the table clean. American and coalition troops still face violent resistance on the ground. Iraq’s religious and ethnic divisions have not been healed. The job of creating a unified, governable nation remains daunting, if less so than a week ago. Still, the image of the erstwhile Saladin meekly submitting to his captors has created an earthquake whose dimensions cannot yet be predicted.
Some of the emerging changes are hardly the ones predicted so confidently by the conservatives who pushed hardest for war. Those on the Israeli and Jewish right who expected an American victory in Iraq to end pressure on Israel for concessions to the Palestinians are finding that the reverse has happened. The administration’s energy and attention have been freed up to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously, as Ori Nir reports on Page 1. And Washington’s recipe remains unchanged: mutual recognition, Palestinian statehood, land for peace. America seems no likelier than before to buy the Israeli argument that Yasser Arafat should receive the same treatment as Saddam.
The result is a chastening one for pro-Israel hawks — and for the conspiracy theorists on the left who saw those hawks as the driving force behind the administration’s push to war.
There are signs, moreover, that America’s triumphant new posture in the Arab world could turn out to be a double-edged sword. News reports suggest that Saddam’s downfall has had a sobering effect on the Arab and Islamic street, dampening the Islamic triumphalism that was fueling confrontation between Islam and the West. Still unclear is whether the triumphalism will be replaced by realism and moderation or by new waves of rage and humiliation.
Much will depend on how America conducts itself in the months ahead. If we now strut across the Middle East like some imperial conqueror, as some conservatives now recommend, we could well find ourselves faced with waves of terrorism unlike anything we have seen before. Osama bin Laden is still at large, and so are thousands of his henchmen and sympathizers. We need to reduce the reserves of support for the radicals. The way to do that is by increasing the reserves of sympathy for our side.
We also need to broaden our support among the democracies of the West. As Arab and Islamic societies struggle to make sense of the changed world in which they live, they must see clearly that the choice before them is a stark one between the cramped vision of isolated radicals and the open society embraced by the broad mass of humanity. For that to become clear, the free world must be united behind America. America must provide the sort of leadership that inspires rather than bullies.
Significantly, though, the choice is now America’s to make, and for that President Bush deserves credit.