I just got back from a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth. Didn’t ride the teacups, though. Because I wasn’t in Disneyland but in Washington, D.C., where everyone is walking on air, swept away by the Beltway’s latest consensus: President Bush was right on Iraq, and as a result, Tomorrowland in the Middle East will feature an E-ticket ride on the Matterhorn of freedom and democracy.
The political and cultural establishment has gone positively Goofy over this notion. In the corridors of power, Republicans are high-fiving and Democrats are nodding in agreement and patting themselves on the back for how graciously they’ve been able to accept the fact that they were wrong. The groupthink in the nation’s capital would be the envy of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
Even heroes of mine like Jon Stewart and my buddy Bill Maher have hopped on the Bush bandwagon. “I’ve been supportive of President Bush,” Maher told Wolf Blitzer this week, “now that I think Iraq is turning around … He had a bigger and better idea than the rest of us.”
How did this cozy unanimity come to pass? Is it something in the water, a byproduct of Bush’s gutting the EPA? But then I thought back to my time at Cambridge, taking a course in elementary logic, studying the fallacy of the undistributed middle. For those of you in need of a refresher on the concept, here’s an example from the first chapter of my Logic 101 textbook: “All oaks are trees. All elms are trees. Therefore, all oaks are elms.” See how easily you can go from point A to point Z, jumping over all the important steps in between?
So: We invaded Iraq. Change is afoot in the Middle East. Therefore, the Middle East is changing because we invaded Iraq. QED. GWB.
See how simple it is? And how illogical? The Bush White House has been masterful at this infantile reasoning: America is free and democratic. Terrorists attacked America. Therefore, terrorists hate freedom and democracy. And that’s all anyone needs to know.
What makes this particularly seductive is the historical longing of Americans for political consensus. It’s no accident that the European idea of a loyal opposition never took hold here in the New World. Instead, Democrats are all too eager to suspend disbelief and go along with the fairy tale the president is telling about freedom and democracy on the march, and the happily-ever-after future of the Middle East.
But flip the page on this “once upon a time” fantasy, and what’s revealed is a very ugly war story — a bloody narrative we hear shockingly little about on our daily news. Maybe the four people Brian Nichols killed in Atlanta are more important than the tens of thousands killed in Iraq. Or maybe Bush’s fairy tales have inoculated us to the daily horrors of life over there. The dream is so wonderful that, in its name, we accept all sorts of nightmares.
In truth, I doubt the people of Iraq are going to bed with visions of Thomas Jefferson dancing in their heads. Not when their days are filled with random bombings and checkpoint shootings and kidnappings that have become commonplace. And six weeks after so many of them risked their lives to go to the ballot box, there is still no new Iraqi government in place.
What about the highly touted changes going on elsewhere in the Middle East?
The “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon turned out to be only part of the story, as 500,000 pro-Syrian demonstrators took to the streets of Beirut last week to denounce U.S. involvement in their country. What’s more, the competing protests were ignited by the assassination of the anti-Syrian former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which wasn’t — as far as we know at least — the handiwork of George and Condi and Wolfie.
The local elections in Saudi Arabia were a start — but women weren’t allowed to vote and only half of the seats were up for grabs, with the rest appointed by the royal family. In the meantime, a new report from the State Department found that “the record of human rights abuses and violations in Saudi Arabia … still far exceeds the advances.”
In Egypt, President Mubarak’s promise to open future elections to competing parties hasn’t been accompanied by the lifting of the current repressive emergency laws that, among other things, ban all public demonstrations and allow citizens deemed a threat to national security to be held indefinitely without formal charges. Nor did it stop the recent arrest of Ayman Nur, a leading opposition figure in Egypt. So remind me: What exactly are we celebrating?
Much as I hate to rain on the president’s democracy parade, the fact remains: Holding an election is not the same thing as establishing a democracy. Just ask the people of Russia. Or Algeria. Or Haiti. Or Africa. Indeed there have been more than 50 elections in Africa over the past decade and a half — but the continent couldn’t be realistically described as a hotbed of political freedom.
The truth is the vast majority of Arabs remain skeptical of U.S. motives. So as long as the idea of democracy is equated with America — and promoted by America — it will be much harder for real democracy to take root in the Middle East. Especially when it is democracy accompanied by 150,000 U.S. troops.
And can we really blame the Arab world for its skepticism about the United States’ sudden commitment to freedom and democracy? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Dick Cheney was opposing the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Donald Rumsfeld was cutting deals with Saddam Hussein, and the CIA was overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran, and installing the shah. And President Bush continues to make nice with Mr. Putin, Gen. Musharraf and the House of Saud.
And let’s not forget that the great underpinning of the president’s devotion to spreading democracy throughout the world is his oft-stated belief that more freedom will lead to less terrorism — a belief for which he has offered little evidence. Mohammed Atta was exposed to all the freedom and openness America has to offer. So was Timothy McVeigh. That didn’t stop them from leading the two deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Each was driven by a fanatical ideology, not by a hatred of freedom and democracy.
The most dangerous aspect of the president’s newfound dedication to freedom is that it completely ignores the fact that his aggressive push to liberate the people of Iraq has made us much less safe here at home. And this, more than anything else, is the highest priority of any government. Yet our ports, railways and borders remain porous. Our first responders remain underfunded. Our troops are stretched way too thin. And the war in Iraq has been both a breeding ground and a training ground for the next generation of Islamic terrorists.
But the White House continues to razzle-dazzle the Beltway with its command of the undistributed middle: The president invaded Iraq. There have been no terrorist attacks in America since 9/11. Therefore, the invasion of Iraq has made us safer. And lit the torch of freedom throughout the Arab world.
In any freshman course in logic, this reasoning would collapse, shot full of holes. In Washington, it’s become the conventional wisdom.