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Can’t Win, Can’t Afford To Lose

Had President Bush delivered the same speech at the United Nations before the invasion of Iraq, and then turned to the international body to implement his vision, our world would be quite different today. As it is, we are stuck in Iraq: we cannot win, yet we cannot afford to lose.

The president casts his commitment to the democratization of Iraq in religious language: “Liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress here on Earth.” And, “[A]s we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom.” But thumping the Bible does not make it so. Heaven may plan liberty for all humankind, but unlike the United States under Bush, Heaven is resolutely non-interventionist.

What the president specifically proposed in his November 6 address to the National Endowment for Democracy is difficult to discern. His general proposition, however, is clear: Too many Arab countries suffer from autocratic rule, are fixated on past glories rather than on future possibilities, deny all rights to women and have no concept of “civil society.” And it does neither them nor us any service to turn a blind eye to the consequent tragedy.

He quotes a recent report by Arab scholars, who bravely assert that the global wave of democracy has “barely reached the Arab states.” The scholars go on to say, and the president cites their words, that “This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.” And Mr. Bush concludes, correctly, that “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.”

But if Bush believes that by our actions in Iraq we will inspire democracy throughout the region, he is almost surely mistaken. So far, what we have succeeded in inspiring, in Iraq and throughout the Arab — and Muslim — world, is resentment and even hatred. We are seen as the new Crusaders, this by societies that experience the daily humiliation of knowing in their bones how glorious they once were and how — here I search for a polite word, but cannot do better than “backward” — they have become.

Irrationally, but not implausibly, they lay the blame for that at America’s feet. Our evident sincerity as promoters of democracy is a sweet syrup that cannot adequately mask our bitter record: until now, we’ve embraced and excused Saudi Arabia; not very long ago, we arranged, together with the British, a coup against the popular prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh; we traded happily with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; all this to say nothing of our dismal record as defenders of democracy in Central America. Others may be forgiven for not crediting our sincerity. They hear from us the voice of Jacob; they recall too well the hands of Esau.

But whether Bush is sincere — as, I confess, I am inclined to think he is — is quite beside the point. By going it alone in the invasion, by failing to plan adequately for the aftermath, by refusing to hand over the responsibility both for security and for reconstruction to the U.N., the president has created an intolerable situation. There is no reason to believe that the daily attacks against us, against the humanitarian organizations, against the Iraqi police, are all the work of disgruntled Hussein loyalists and Ba’athists, along with some late-coming Al Qaeda zealots. There is every reason, instead, to believe that the ranks of those who actively oppose our presence grows daily, as we conduct more humiliating raids, as we continue to bluster and blunder in an effort to move the process forward.

Until this week, we spoke confidently of the imminent “Iraqization” of the process: more Iraqi police, soon a constitution, soon thereafter elections, a marked reduction in the American presence. In his speech, the president asserted that “In Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council are also working together to build a democracy” and “[W]e’re working closely with Iraqi citizens as they prepare a constitution, as they move toward free elections and take increasing responsibility for their own affairs.” That was on November 6.

On November 9, the Washington Post reported that the United States is “disappointed” in Iraq’s Governing Council and is actively considering other ways of empowering the Iraqis.

The prospect that America, with the troops it has at its disposal, will prevail in establishing security — let alone democracy — in Iraq is negligible. Still, the president is correct when he says, “The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region.” And therein lies the rub: We cannot succeed, but we dare not fail.

The president’s belief that we will not fail is just that — a belief. Faith is no substitute for fact, no matter how fervently held. The instant question now is whether, before the hate and the resentment of all the Muslim world become the Bush legacy, the president will have the courage to back off, to invite others to share both the burden and the authority that until now he has so recklessly preempted.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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