WITH THINGS LOOKING UP for a change, this has been a rough patch of time for the Democrats. They have been suffering from Election Shock Treatment; which means the success of the Iraqi elections has shocked them into the realization that they may have to seek treatment, because of the trauma induced by the growing suspicion that President Bush has been right all along: right in the decision to go into Iraq; right in the decision to hang tough in Palestine; right in the belief that Muslims and Arabs may also want freedom; that elections there can be held, and succeed.
But even before this last "bad" (read, good) news, things had turned grim for the quagmire addicts, with the terrible realization that events elsewhere had not taken a turn for the worse. In August 2004, for instance, Australian Prime Minister John Howard was not defeated for his sin of backing Bush in the Iraqi invasion, dealing no blow at all to the Bush coalition. Then the Afghan elections went all too smoothly, despite the fact that the country, three years earlier, had been a perfect model of 13th century governance. Then the Palestinians, after Arafat's death, had the gall to start edging somewhat away from their ideological precipice, suggesting we might face a third non-disaster, a prospect too ghastly to contemplate.
In December, some of the savvier commentators had begun suggesting that Bush's democracy project was showing signs of working, and Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Winston S Churchill, had written that Bush and his main man Tony Blair might stand some day with Churchill and Roosevelt. Among the in crowd--which had been appalled when Ronald Reagan, the amiable dunce, was declared by serious people the liberator of the people of Communist Europe--the idea that history might repeat itself was too much to bear.
"The success of the elections poses a major intellectual-moral political problem for people in this city," writes Kurt Andersen in New York, a magazine which even in its first issue after 9/11 could not restrain itself from taking a few swipes at the red states and "their" president. "Now the people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush, despite his annoying manner . . . hubris and dissembling and incompetence . . . just might--might possibly--have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq."
The whole thing is almost too awful to think of, and one way of not thinking is to pretend nothing happened, and on this the press and the Democrats have surely done more than their best. For months, signs of progress were ignored or buried; while setbacks and embarrassments were stretched out. The Afghan elections dropped down the memory hole with nary a flutter. If Howard had lost in Australia, that election, like the one in Spain some months earlier, would have been correctly played up as a major event of world-wide significance. As it was not a vote of no-confidence in Bush and his mission, it ended up, when noticed, in the deep inside pages, and the international aspects weren't touched on. As for the Iraqi elections, the less said the better has been the approach of all good Bush-bashers. On Meet the Press this Sunday, Maureen Dowd, looking more and more desolate as Tom Friedman and Bill Safire chirped on about freedom and turning points, tried to wrench the subject back to the 2000 "stolen" election and Gannongate, the tale of a weirdo who wrangled a press pass and surely not the most crucial story of the new century.
But denial usually cannot be dragged on forever, and one day one deals with one's grief. Some acknowledged the event, but denied much had happened, such as the always tone-deaf John Kerry, who on Meet The Press looked as if he were at somebody's funeral; perhaps his own. Others went in for a more "nuanced" explanation: a fine thing had happened in Iraq, they conceded, but it had nothing to do with George W. Bush. Senate Democratic leader Harry "Reid praised Iraqis for voting," said the Los Angeles Times, "but he gave little credit to the administration for helping Iraqis hold the election , and said 'We all know that these brave men and women will never be truly freed until they can walk through their cities and towns without fear.'" Michael Barone quotes a Guardian columnist to the effect that the war was "a reckless, provocative, dangerous, lawless piece of unilateral arrogance," that nonetheless brought about a wonderful outcome, "which would not have been achieved at all, or so quickly, by the means that the critics advocated, right though they were" in most cases. Tina Brown, too, displays this syndrome.
"Every Bush hater you meet in New York is engaged in an inner struggle of how much to let go of the past," writes Brown. "Liberals don't want to be left spreading the grumpy notion that liberty can't travel," she tells us, "even if it turns out to be true." Huh? "Cognitive dissonance," as Andersen tells us, is indeed rife in Manhattan, or at least in the tonier neighborhoods. Brown goes on: "If all the fake rationales and pigheaded ideology and bungled management that took us into the debacle of the war end up with the vibrant images we saw . . . at the Iraqi polls, then, well, maybe there's something to be said for the blank slate of the president's historical memory." Is that clear now? A pigheaded debacle led straight to a shining and wonderful moment. Is there something wrong with this thought?
Can anyone improve on this prime piece of logic? Well yes, someone can, someone from the New Yorker, the magazine Brown edited in happier times, which has since evolved into a bitter-end Bush-baiting outlet, what the Nation might be if it ran ads from Tiffany's. In addition to running a two-page cartoon spread during the Republican convention last summer that showed Republican delegates as green and fanged reptiles, the magazine has turned into Quagmire Central on Iraq. "Critics of the Bush Administration can take comfort in the fact that the apparent success of the Iraqi election can be celebrated without having to celebrate the supposed wisdom of the Administration," sniped Hendrik Hertzberg in a recent "Talk of the Town" column. "Iraq is still a very, very long way from democracy. And even if it gets there, the cost of the journey--the more than ten thousand (so far) American wounded and dead . . . the billions of dollars diverted . . . the lies, the distraction from and gratuitous extension of the 'war on terror' . . . will not necessarily justify themselves. But, for the moment at least, one can marvel at the power of the democratic idea. It survived American slavery; it survived Stalinist cooptation . . . Cold war horrors like America's support of Spanish Falangism and Central American death squads. Perhaps it can even survive the fervent embrace of George W. Bush."
Phew. Will someone run next door, please, and borrow a large cup of nuance? Without it we can't take this in. Let's see: The elections succeeded in spite of the one man who caused them, and BECAUSE of the people whose publications and candidates had fought Bush every step of the way. Or, put another way, the elections were a success and a great moral victory; but the ideas that led up to them were the purest examples of bone-headed bungling; and the man who thought them all up was a dunce. But when bone-headed blundering produces success not once but thrice over, we may find that we want a whole lot more of it, much as Lincoln once said that the Union needed more drunken generals like Ulysses S. Grant.
Liberals are always hot for democracy once the struggles are over: It's in the struggles themselves they slip up. If the candidates favored by Brown and by Hertzberg--Carter and Mondale over Reagan; Michael Dukakis over George Bush the Elder, and Al Gore and John Kerry over George Bush the son--had been in power in moments of crisis, democracy would hardly now be on the march, the Berlin Wall would most likely be standing; the Sandinistas and other Communists might well still be spreading terror in Central America; Saddam Hussein would not only be in Iraq but in Kuwait and perhaps Saudi Arabia; and those brave happy voters would still be suffering under a vicious and sadistic tyranny.
Claiming credit in retrospect for things you opposed at the time is a new high in chutzpah, or, if not that, in delusion. But delusion is what people retreat to when reality is much too traumatic. "Here's the great fear that I have," said comedian Jon Stewart once the Iraq elections were over. "What if Bush, the president, ours, has been right about this all along? I feel that my world view may not sustain itself, and I may, and again I don't know if I can physically do this, implode." Why does one feel that he speaks for the Browns, and the Hertzbergs, and beyond them, for millions of others? "We wait to see if Democrats can find a way to talk about the Iraqi elections that isn't madness personified," The Note, the political newsletter of ABC News, said after two weeks of this madness. And so do we all.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.