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The View from the Plane

What the Iraq elections looked like from Afghanistan, England, and elsewhere.

11:00 PM, Feb 1, 2005 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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I'VE JUST FLOWN IN from Afghanistan, and boy, are my arms tired. Simply sitting in an economy-class seat--even on British Airways, the world's only civilized airline--gave me quite a compacted feeling.

But the exhaustion and compression were well worth it to get in better touch with the elections in Iraq, or at least world reaction to them. Afghans weren't paying much attention to Iraq, other than to express their dislike of Arabs in general and express their wonderment that the Iraqi insurgents were attacking their liberators. While no peoples have a greater natural hostility to foreign armies than the Afghans--after decades of Soviet socialist fraternal help and a brief dose of the Taliban--they are pretty clear on the distinction between liberation and occupation.

With a feeling that I had gained at least some understanding of Afghan opinion on the matter--and motivated by a very strong desire for my own bed and a really hot shower--I started Saturday on the long trek home from Kabul to Washington. Getting out of Kabul was the hardest part; the phrase "regularly scheduled" does not translate well into Dari or Pahsto, I guess. And the first flight only got me as far as Dubai. Now that's a regularly scheduled place--"regularly" as in unvarying. The Dubai airport is ripe for a combination Bill Murray-Tom Hanks movie: Terminally Lost in Translation. It's a place out of time, but with a peculiarly Las Vegas-emirate twist. The idea that there were historic political doings just up the Gulf was nowhere in evidence, at least in Dubai Terminal Number 1.

Next connection was London, where on early Sunday morning the BBC was broadcasting the early returns. The relative lack of violence and the obvious enthusiasm of the Iraqi voters--the initial Beeb telecasts came from Basra, where British forces are centered but which is also a Shia stronghold--seemed a bit of a disappointment to the presenters and analysts in the United Kingdom, but the reporters in the field carried the day. By the time I got on the plane, pictures of celebrating Iraqis were dominating the BBC coverage.

By the time I touched down in Washington and settled in for a full dose of cable-news coverage--speed-dialing between Fox, MSNBC, and CNN is the fastest way to reconnect to the punditocracy--it was nearly undeniable that the Iraqi elections were a tremendous success. Even Chris Matthews seemed to be in touch with his small-d democratic roots. Military analysts like retired General Wayne Downing were biting their tongues to preserve a façade of modesty; it wasn't pro-Bush partisanship so much as relief that the U.S. military was seen to be winning, at least for the moment.

It was such a nice homecoming that I slept through the entire Monday news cycle. I figured I wasn't going to miss much other than a one-day truce in the assault on Bush administration Iraq and Middle East policy. Sure enough, by Tuesday morning the American insurgency was back in full swing. In the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne urged us to "Keep the Euphoria in Check;" just underneath him Richard Cohen warned of the "Unfinished Story in Iraq." Both stressed the need for "modesty" and demonstrated that they knew who Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was. And both more or less concluded, as Dionne put it, that now was the time for President Bush to listen to his critics, men such as themselves, who believed not only that U.S. policy in Iraq was mistaken but morally bankrupt, too.

If leftist columnists counseled modesty, Democratic party leaders were ready to declare victory and get out of Iraq as fast as possible. To minority leader Senator Harry Reid, the elections were such a smashing success that now was the time--"most of all"--for the administration to define "an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there." Reid stopped short of Ted Kennedy's timetable for withdrawal, but the basic impulse was the same. And it was summed up very neatly by columnist Robert Scheer in the Lost Angeles Times: "After the excellent election news, it's time for Bush to plan a pullout."

As soon as they get a little more electricity and hot water, I'm going back to Kabul. The place has got a lot of problems, to be sure, but at least they know what victory looks like--and that immodesty in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.