The Magazine

The Collapse of the Dream Palaces

From the April 28, 2003 issue: Mass destruction of mistaken ideas.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By DAVID BROOKS
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In this dream palace, Bush, Cheney, and a junta of corporate oligarchs stole the presidential election, then declared war on Iraq to seize its oil and hand out the spoils to Halliburton and Bechtel. In this dream palace, the warmongering Likudniks in the administration sit around dreaming of conquests in Syria, Iran, and beyond. In this dream palace, the boy genius Karl Rove hatches schemes to use the Confederate flag issue to win more elections, John Ashcroft wages holy war on American liberties, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and his cabal of neoconservatives long for global empire. In this dream palace, every story of Republican villainy is believed, and all the windows are shuttered with hate.

THESE DREAM PALACES have taken a beating over the past month. As the scientists would say, they are conceptual models that failed to predict events. But as we try to understand the political and cultural importance of the war in Iraq, the question is this: Will they crumble under the weight of undeniable facts? Will the illusions fall, and the political landscape change?

My first guess is that the dream palace of the Arabists will temporarily sag. As happened after the Six Day War back in 1967, the newspapers and TV networks that depicted glorious Arab victories and failed to prepare their audiences for the crushing defeat that came will see their credibility suffer. The radicals who preach eternal war with the infidel will seem stale, architects of a failed vision. As happened after Desert Storm, the Arabs who preach reform and modernization will begin to seem more attractive. There will be some restlessness, some searching for a fresh start and a different way, and thus a window of opportunity will open for democratization and peace, but that opening will have a termination date. The window will close if, a year or two hence, millions of Arabs continue to feel humiliated by their region's backwardness. They will go looking again for conspiracy theories, victimhood, and rage.

My second guess is that Europeans will not shake off their clichéd image of America. The stereotypes are entrenched too deeply. But official Europe will go through one of its periodic phases of gloomy and self-lacerating introspection. There will be laments about European impotence, continental divisions, the need to build a common European alternative. But this self-criticism will not spark any fundamental change, just summits, conferences, and books.

My third guess is that the Bush haters will grow more vociferous as their numbers shrink. Even progress in Iraq will not dampen their anger, because as many people have noted, hatred of Bush and his corporate cronies is all that is left of their leftism. And this hatred is tribal, not ideological. And so they will still have their rallies, their alternative weeklies, and their Gore Vidal polemics. They will still have a huge influence over the Democratic party, perhaps even determining its next presidential nominee. But they will seem increasingly unattractive to most moderate and even many normally Democratic voters who never really adopted outrage as their dominant public emotion.

In other words, there will be no magic "Aha!" moment that brings the dream palaces down. Even if Saddam's remains are found, even if weapons of mass destruction are displayed, even if Iraq starts to move along a winding, muddled path toward normalcy, no day will come when the enemies of this endeavor turn around and say, "We were wrong. Bush was right." They will just extend their forebodings into a more distant future. Nevertheless, the frame of the debate will shift. The war's opponents will lose self-confidence and vitality. And they will backtrack. They will claim that they always accepted certain realities, which, in fact, they rejected only months ago.

BUT THERE IS ANOTHER, larger group of people whose worldviews will be permanently altered by the war in Iraq. Members of this group were not firm opponents of the war. Indeed, they were mild supporters, or they were ambivalent. They were members of the vast, nervous American majority that swung behind the president as the fighting commenced.

These people do not have foreign policy categories deeply entrenched in their brains. They don't see themselves as hawks or doves, realists or Wilsonians. They don't see each looming conflict either through the prism of Vietnam, as many peaceniks do, or through the prism of the 1930s and the Cold War, as many conservatives do. They don't attract any press coverage or much attention, because they seldom take a bold stand either way. Their foreign policy instincts are unformed. But they are the quiet people who swing elections.