Right Hook

After the vote: Podhoretz rips Democrats, Kerry for not celebrating "Bush's colossal vindication"; Steyn gloats that Iran is next. But a leading neocon acknowledges huge blunders.

By Mark Follman
Published February 3, 2005 12:04AM (EST)

In the days bookending the Iraqi election, there wasn't a whole lot of sophisticated discussion about the prospect of democracy's taking root in the war-torn region. On Sunday, the day of the vote, New York Times Magazine contributor Michael Ignatieff (generally regarded as a "liberal hawk") pointed out the polarized and vapid punditry from both ends of the spectrum -- though he focused on the shortcomings of the political left, which he criticized for its lack of vocal support for Iraqi democracy. Borrowing a riff more typical of the far right, Ignatieff deemed the left's "morose silence" in the face of insurgent violence a "casualty of the corrosive bitterness that still surrounds the initial decision to go to war."

"Liberals can't bring themselves to support freedom in Iraq," he wrote, "lest they seem to collude with neoconservative bombast. Meanwhile, antiwar ideologues can't support the Iraqis because that would require admitting that positive outcomes can result from bad policies and worse intentions."

Whether or not Ignatieff has it right that liberals are lining up against freedom in Iraq out of principled defiance, many on the far right seized upon Sunday's relatively high voter turnout to sugarcoat the country's long-term prospects -- still plenty bleak by several measures -- and to shout "vindication" from the roof tops.

"There are literally millions of Americans who are unhappy today because millions of Iraqis went to the polls yesterday," scoffed John Podhoretz in the New York Post on Monday. "And why? Because this isn't just a success for Bush. It's a huge win. It's a colossal vindication. It's a big fat gigantic winning vindication of the guy that the Moores and Kennedys and millions of others still can't believe anybody voted for.

"And they know it.

"And it's killing them."

For Podhoretz, the villainous Bush critics to be put in their place included the president's former opponent.

"Case in point: the junior Eeyore from Massachusetts, John Forbes Kerry, who had the distinct misfortune of being booked onto 'Meet the Press' yesterday only 90 minutes after the polls closed in Iraq -- and couldn't think of a thing to say that didn't sound negative.

"'No one in the United States should try to overhype this election,' said the man who actually came within 3 million votes of becoming the leader of the Free World back in November.

"No? How about 'underhyping'? How about belittling it? How about acting as though it doesn't matter all that much? That's what Kerry did, and in so doing, revealed yet again that he has the emotional intelligence of a pet rock and the political judgment of a ... well, of a John Kerry."

"Yesterday was a day for Democrats and opponents of George W. Bush to swallow their bile and retract their claws and join just for a moment in celebration of an amazing and thrilling human drama in a land that has seen more than its share of thrilling human drama over the past 5,000 years. But you just couldn't do it, could you?


The New York Times' David Brooks went a little lighter on the gloating, instead taking his main cue from the president's high-flying inauguration speech.

"And then came Sunday's act of mass heroism. On the Internet and in interviews, Iraqis tried to convey the tactile feel of their new migration to normalcy. 'Every person has realized that he's not fighting alone in this battle,' one voter wrote. 'I moved to mark my finger with ink. I dipped it deep as if I was poking the eyes of all the world's tyrants.'

"They proudly described liberating themselves, finally making themselves the initiators of their own lives."

Brooks dismissed any concerns about the situation on the ground, emphasizing what he believes to be an even truer form of democracy in action than our own.

"The journey back from where these people have been is not a straight shot, which we can readily understand. In Washington, senators make facile arguments about improving the training of Iraqi troops, trying to reduce problems of motivation to problems of technique. Ted Kennedy gave a speech last week blithely insisting that the terrorists are winning the war for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Brent Scowcroft warned of incipient civil war, denigrating the Iraqis' ability to manage their own tensions.

"In fact, these are a people who voted at higher rates in the face of death than we do in the face of inconvenience. These are a people who have used the campaign as a process of therapy and self-education. These people have just built the most democratic government in the Arab world."

In the Chicago Sun-Times Mark Steyn predicted that Iraq is on its way to becoming "the economic powerhouse of the region," the result of a well-conceived destabilization of the entire Middle East. He also returned to the original sin of delaying the invasion in the first place: Bush's going "the extra mile" at the United Nations, he said, allowed some other "low-hanging fruit" dangling from the axis of evil to ripen a little too long.

"It would be idiotic to assume that, with an almighty invasion force squatting on his borders for six months, Saddam just sat there listening to his Sinatra LPs. He was very busy, as were the Islamists, and Iran, and Syria. The result is not only an insurgency far more virulent than it would have been had Washington followed my advice rather than Tony's and gone in in August 2002, but also a broader range of enemies that learned a lot about how 'world' -- i.e., European -- opinion could be played off against Washington.

"I don't believe Bush would make that mistake again. Which means he wouldn't have spoken quite so loudly if the big stick weren't already in place -- if plans weren't well advanced for dealing with Iran and some of the low-hanging fruit elsewhere in the region. Bush won't abolish all global tyranny by 2008 -- that might have to wait till Condi's second term -- but he will abolish some of it, and today's elections are as important in that struggle as any military victory."

Author and Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson invoked the sweep of history in support of the ideological mission: "The preference for the status quo offers short-term stability, while the principled insistence on consensual government proves risky and hinges on unproven reformers," he wrote on Monday. "Yet in the long-term, America has rarely gone wrong for being on the democratic side of history."

He sees Bush's legacy in Iraq as a bright one, eventually.

"If the past is any guide to the future, that hard road to democracy in the Middle East will create as much immediate chaos and caricature of President Bush's new idealism as it does enduring stability and eventual praise -- but only long after he is gone."

An unlikely realist from the right wing?
Johns Hopkins University's Eliot A. Cohen, who has served the gamut of neoconservative organizations, from the Defense Policy Board to the Project for the New American Century, wrote in Monday's Wall Street Journal that the Iraqi vote was "a victory, no doubt about it."

But far more striking was his lengthy, sober assessment of just how much has gone wrong under Bush.

"If the war has had its great successes, it has also had more than its share of bungles, evident in the chaos and suffering in Iraq, heavy loss of American life, and a battered reputation for the United States abroad. Bloody mistakes occur in all wars, as some point out -- an easy wisdom that flows most easily from those who have no loved ones in harm's way. Even such philosophers, however, should honor the 8,000 families of dead and wounded American soldiers by facing the unpleasant truths, because even if blunders characterize all wars, blunders they remain."

Cohen outlined the broader consequences of Bush's accumulated policy debacle.

"Because we choose to cut taxes in wartime, we have a ballooning deficit; because we have a ballooning deficit we cannot expand the active-duty military on a permanent basis; because we cannot expand the active-duty military we call up hundreds of thousands of reservists to fight an optional war half a world away, sending part-time soldiers -- some ready for this mission, others not -- off for a year of combating guerrillas in a limited war, a concept at odds with all previous notions of what citizen-soldiers do."

That, Cohen added, while Bush stuck with and heaped praise on failed civilian leaders:

"Ambassador Paul Bremer, an intelligent and self-sacrificing man, accepted the call to go to Iraq, with neither the time nor the authority to build a staff and a plan. Still, the Coalition Provisional Authority he ran was a disaster, a micromanaged American enterprise too often out of touch with Iraqi realities. The U.S. government that had not provided the structure needed to administer postwar Iraq would not admit his deficiencies and replace him. Instead, he, like George Tenet and Gen. Tommy Franks -- equally able and patriotic men, who also failed in key aspects of the Iraq war -- received the Presidential Medal of Freedom."

Cohen concluded with some advice surely directed at the entrenched Bush White House.

"The United States may still achieve a tolerable outcome in Iraq," he wrote, "albeit at the cost of far too much American and Iraqi blood, far too much treasure, far too much political capital. We remain big, rich and determined; above all, we have tapped a yearning for freedom in Iraq. But as we celebrate this historic poll, honoring the courage of the millions of Iraqis who risked their lives to vote, and the bravery and skill of our soldiers and public servants who helped them do so, we should, in all humility, look at our failures as well as our successes, call them by that name, and learn from them."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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