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The second act in the second American-led invasion of Iraq is drawing to a close. What began with the swift routing of the largest army in the Middle East, and was followed by a lawless guerrilla and terror war, this week began to anticlimax with a British retreat from Basra and an American statement that the situation now allows the US to shrink its military presence.
Narrowly speaking, the British move and the American statement - reportedly made by George Bush himself during an unannounced visit to Iraq - mean that both Washington and London feel their loss of troops in Mesopotamia must end. More deeply, theirs is effectively a concession that while many things may have been accomplished in this invasion - most notably Saddam Hussein's removal and the consolidation of the Kurdish autonomy - its grand aim, the political reinvention of the Middle East, will for now remain undelivered.
THE THINKING that came to dominate the Pentagon following the September 11 attacks, namely that the Middle East's fundamental problem is its freedom deficiency - was as novel as it was noble.
Until then, people in the State Department (not to mention their European colleagues) believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the cause rather than the result of the Middle East's chronic instability. In fact, even many Israelis felt so, an attitude whose supreme expression was their New Middle East vision, which consciously legitimized and courted Arab autocrats, insisting that Israel could single-handedly pacify its neighbors and that Jerusalem's peace gestures would do to the post-Cold War Middle East what the Marshall Plan did to postwar Europe.
Paradoxically, Israel's diplomacy of redemption in the 1990s was but the inversion of the military messianism which had inspired its Lebanon campaign in the 1980s - an invasion whose declared aim was to emancipate its northern neighbor. Though diametrically opposed in their methods, both efforts similarly sought to reinvent the region, only to learn that Israel was in no position to inspire, let alone reshape, the Middle East.
For Middle Israelis, the Oslo effort's violent aftermath, but even more so the religious triumphalism and mental revulsion with which their diplomatic overtures of summer 2000 were soon rejected, constituted a counter-messianic trauma. And as is often the effect of sharp shifts from euphoria to depression, their previous faith was not only tempered, but lost.
Like the talmudic sages who suppressed the memory of Simon Bar Kochba, the second-century anti-Roman rebel who led ancient Judea to catastrophe after some rabbis declared him the messiah, and just as the rabbis of the 17th century became spiritually shocked following the conversion to Islam of Shabbetai Zvi - the Ottoman Jew they had accepted in 1666 as the messiah - we Israelis lost this decade our faith in diplomatic redemption, just after thinking we had actually seen its light.
In walling the West Bank and abandoning Gaza to Islamism's devices, we displayed a post-redemptive mindset, one that became wholly suspicious, cynical, pragmatic, defensive and disillusioned even in the face of the dim sound of a faint effort to moderately shorten the distance between our days and the days to come.
Now America, whose diplomatic pendulum anyhow has historically swung back and forth between messianism and isolationism, is in for a post-messianic hangover much like post-Oslo Israel's.
BY THE time America invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, the suicides' war on Israel was two-and-a-half years old. Middle Israelis could therefore be excused for doubting, already then, the feasibility of George Bush's messianic plans. Quietly and politely, they told American interlocutors that while defeating Saddam's army would be relatively cheap and universally appreciated, occupying Iraq would involve a kind of bloodshed that even America could doubtfully avert, or afford.
Then again, Israelis also said to themselves, "What do we know, this is a superpower; it has so much more military depth, financial clout and diplomatic sway than we had when Menachem Begin invaded Lebanon." Moreover, superpowers surely did habitually reshape regions, so maybe - we thought - the Middle East will be for America what, say, North Africa was for Rome, a strategic threat that was eventually subdued and then integrated into a broad imperial sphere.
Now of course some anti-Americans are gloating privately: "What Africa, what Rome, we're talking Napoleon drowning in Russia's snowfields!" Well, they would be wise to hold their horses, and remember that messianic traumas, military setbacks, tactical retreats and strategic blunders are all different things, and that while confusing them may sometimes work emotionally, it still won't hold water intellectually.
Never mind that these are often the same circles who have yet to repent for their own messianic past, the ones who during the 1970s and 1980s prodded Israel to waltz with Arafat, assuring it that he meant peace and was out to build a secular democracy alongside Israel - three different promises, each of which was empirically tested, only to prove as fantastic as Iraq's Jeffersonian democracy. Think only that failing to accomplish one declared goal in one given historic moment - like America's in Iraq - can be no basis for the imperial eulogies that some are beginning to prepare.
ANALOGIES TO Napoleon's demise can only be made by those who either don't know, or hope everyone else isn't aware, that he lost some 370,000 men between Moscow and the Berezina River. The US Army, thank God, is fully intact and its casualties so far in Iraq, while all lamentable, are about one-100th of Napoleon's in Russia, while America's population is some ten times larger than 1812-France's. In fact, American losses in Iraq are less than one-tenth its losses in Vietnam, a war which also was prematurely declared a defeat by America's detractors, many of whom lived to see the US ultimately win the real cause, freedom, while the ostensible victors - Ho Chi Minh's heirs - quietly abandoned communism and begged Washington's favor.
Eventually, the same will happen in the Middle East.
True, freedom will not be imposed from without; it will have to grow from within, the way it did in Eastern Europe. And true, it may have to begin with economic transition, the way it did in China, rather than in political salvation, the way it did in Latin America. And yes, it will have to involve curing an anti-Western neurosis, the kind that India managed to shed, but ultimately a critical mass of Arabs will realize that while everyone else journeyed to the future, they were being taken for a ride to the past.
When that moment finally arrives - and it may take decades, even generations - they will only have each other to stare at; America, Britain, Australia and the rest of those who hoped to help the Arab world fast-forward history will no longer be there for them to kick around.
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