Does Zapatero have a point?
One year after the United States and our allies launched the Iraq War, Spain's newly elected Socialist prime minister says he considers the war a failure. In fact, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero calls it "a disaster."
Perhaps his views are colored by the tragic loss of life his country recently suffered. But to see if he's correct, let's recall what President Bush said at the start of the war. "American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," he announced on March 19, 2003.
By that standard, it's difficult to agree with Zapatero. The war clearly accomplished the critical objectives the president laid out.
The most obvious success: Saddam Hussein's corrupt government is out of power, and the dictator is in custody. This is no small feat. After all, Saddam survived other wars, including the 1991 Gulf War.
That conflict brought crushing United Nations sanctions to Iraq. For more than a decade, Saddam defied a series of U.N. resolutions, even as his country's economy collapsed. Women and children starved, but Saddam lived in luxury, maintaining dozens of presidential palaces. His complete control of Iraq's military and police organizations kept him safely in place.
Today, freedom is allowing Iraq's economy to boom. The unemployment rate has plunged from at least 50 percent at the time of the U.S. invasion to around 25 percent. Far more goods are available now, including high-tech imports such as satellite dishes, refrigerators, computers, modems and cell phones.
Imported cars are also flowing into the country -- and that's actually causing some problems. As ABC News reported recently, "traffic and other transportation problems have become a major concern. In central Iraq, people ranked this their second-highest priority." Rest assured that Iraq's incoming government would rather deal with the problem of too many cars on the road than too few. Cars mean commerce, and that's a good starting point for a healthy economy.
A new government, run by Iraqis, will be in place this summer. All sides have agreed to an interim constitution that guarantees fundamental rights, including a bill of rights with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and, most notably, freedom of religion.
We'll hear a lot about difficulties in the months and years to come as Iraqis finally begin to exercise democracy. That's because democracy itself is messy. Even minor problems frequently generate loud debate. But again, that's a good problem to have. Loud, democratic debate means problems are being solved with words instead of guns. That's a far cry from the way problems were solved under Saddam -- when dissenters were executed or locked away for decades.
Finally, as President Bush predicted, the war in Iraq has helped make us safer.
Not only is Saddam himself finally disarmed after decades of obstructing U.N. inspection teams, but other terror-supporting regimes are starting to fall into line. Earlier this year, Libya decided to give up its quest for nuclear weapons and rejoin the community of nations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency learned that Libya's nuclear program had been growing since the early 1980s and had succeeded in producing a small amount of plutonium and assembling the basic components to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.
Small wonder that Muammar Qadhafi opted to give up his nuclear program now. He realized that President Bush was serious about taking down terrorist-supporting regimes, and he decided to finally get on the correct side of history.
The Iraqi people are optimistic. For the first time in decades, they've got a real say in their future, and they're confident democracy will take hold. When it does, Iraq will serve as a beacon of freedom to the entire Middle East.
Quite a change. Not bad for a year's work, don't you think, Mr. Zapatero?
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire