Essay: How about: 'Good try, George'

Ehud Olmert could have been supportive of George W. Bush without making himself ridiculous.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
Our prime minister, one of whose problems is that he says too little when he should be saying more and too much when he should be saying less, was caught too-muching in Washington this week when he decided to praise the American involvement in Iraq. Less than a week after a Democratic electoral victory that was in large measure a protest by the American people against this involvement, Ehud Olmert might have been more discreet. Discretion aside, he was also being foolish. To say, as he did, that the American campaign in Iraq has had "a dramatic and positive effect on security and stability in the Middle East" is to say something so patently absurd that even the most determined flatterer of President Bush should have known better. The military effort in Iraq in shambles, a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war under way, Islamic fundamentalism strengthened, moderate Arab regimes on the defensive, Iran's position in the Middle East enhanced, an American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities rendered all but impossible, the international prestige of the United States at an all-time low, Israel blamed for this in many circles - thishas helped bring security and stability to the Middle East? At a time when all but the last diehards of those in America who once enthusiastically supported the war have changed their minds about it, Olmert's remarks suggest he hasn't read a newspaper in months. If there's anything still worth debating today about the American decision to invade Iraq three-and-a-half years ago, it isn't whether that invasion has succeeded or failed. It has failed. The only case that remains to be made on its behalf is that it was worth doing anyway. Had Ehud Olmert wanted to be kind to President Bush without making himself ridiculous, this is the line he should have taken. THE ARGUMENT would go something like this: The decision to invade Iraq and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein was, under the circumstances in which it was made, a sensible calculated risk. Contrary to subsequent accusations, the president and his advisers had no certain way of knowing that Saddam Hussein did not possess, or was not in the process of developing, weapons of mass destruction. On the contrary, Saddam's repeated stonewalling of all international efforts at inspection was strong prima facie evidence that he did have and was developing such weapons. This in itself was sufficient reason to depose him. Yet even had it been known that Saddam was not building a chemical and nuclear arsenal, the tyranny of his rule, and his repeated flouting of the international community, fully justified his forcible removal. If he was not a menace to the world, he was still one to his own people. It is ironic that the same critics who now castigate America for going into Iraq castigated it for decades before that for tolerating far less brutal dictatorships than Saddam's that were its allies in the Cold War. One cannot without a great deal of hypocrisy blame the United States both for supporting dictatorships and for overthrowing the worst of them. Moreover, the hope of accompanying this overthrow with the creation of a genuine Iraqi democracy, the first of its kind in the Arab world, was not only a noble one, it was, seen from a pre-invasion perspective, a perfectly logical strategy to pursue. There was clearly an interconnection between Muslim fundamentalism, the economic and social backwardness of Arab countries, the jihadist ideology of Islamic terror, and the lack of democracy in the Arab world, and the notion that breaking this nexus in one major Arab country might start a chain reaction was not unreasonable. Of course, in retrospect it can be claimed that it was a fantasy ever to believe that democracy could be introduced into Iraq. Looking back on the last three-and-a-half years, Iraqi society seems to have been inherently undemocratizable. How can the American planners of the war been so poorly informed as not to have realized this? But there is a sanctimonious measure of hindsight in this question. No one had ever previously tried to make a democratic Iraq; how could anyone know in advance that it couldn't be done? One could just as well have argued in 1945 that Japan, a country with an Oriental mentality, an authoritarian social structure, and no democratic traditions to speak of, could not possibly be democratized, either. Not everything can be figured out a priori. Sometimes the only way of knowing whether something will work is to put it to the test. INDEED, suppose for a moment that America had invaded Iraq, gotten rid of Saddam, and installed one of his ex-henchmen in his place, a cooperative generalissimo willing to play ball with Washington in return for a free hand in continuing the repression in Baghdad - what would today's critics of the war in Iraq have said then? It's easy enough to imagine: "There go those Americans again, championing democracy in theory and trampling in practice! Who says the Iraqis aren't ready for democracy? What a condescendingly racist notion it is to think that some people aren't capable of knowing what's good for them simply because they're Arabs!" In short, George W. Bush was faced, in early 2003, with three possibilities. He could have decided against military action, let Saddam stay in power, and been blamed for it; he could have ousted Saddam, replaced him with a Saddam-lite, and been blamed for that too; or he could have done what he has done - and faced being blamed for that also. In the end, he chose the best of the three alternatives. It didn't work out as he had hoped? No, it didn't. There is always a chance that things won't work out. That's not always a sufficient reason to do nothing. Besides Iraq itself, no country, not even America, will suffer as badly from the American failure there as Israel. But there's no point in pretending it hasn't happened, as Ehud Olmert did this week in Washington. Had he simply said, "Good try, George," he would have sounded a lot more sensible.