If the Bush administration can be criticized for clinging to naïve assumptions about the prospects for democracy in Iraq, many of its critics now seem guilty of the opposite problem: a soul-destroying cynicism about anything good emerging in that troubled country.
Consider the response to Ayad Allawi's recent visit to Washington. Here was a political exile who once escaped axe-wielding henchmen dispatched by Saddam Hussein to kill him. Here was the new voice of Iraq -- a country saturated in sadism and violence for three decades -- proclaiming to the U.S. Congress his government's commitment to democracy and human rights. Here was the interim prime minister, who daily receives death threats, offering insurgents a role in the political process. Here was a Muslim leader, from a region awash in Islamic radicalism, thanking America for liberating Iraq and pledging to stand with us until the extremists are defeated.
"We are fighting for freedom and democracy, ours and yours," Allawi said. "Neither tyranny nor terrorism has a place in our region or our world." By any reasonable judgment, it was a remarkable historical moment. Yet the response of numerous elites -- politicians, journalists, and religious thinkers -- was cold doubt and rank defensiveness.
John Kerry's campaign immediately dismissed Allawi as "a puppet" of the Bush administration. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg scowled that he has "never met a person who cared about whether the Iraqis enjoy the fruits of democracy or not." The New York Times criticized Allawi as a "ruthless" leader for "expressing doubts about the value of a free press" (i.e., he criticizes the Western media's negative reporting in Iraq). Fr. Andrew Greeley simply complained that it's time to get U.S. troops "out of the quagmire in which they're bogged." Religious historian Martin Marty, giving special credence to suggestions of military failure, wondered: "At what point may, and must, some moral and religious voices be raised to call the continuing venture immoral?"
At what point, it also should be asked, will critics admit that real gains in security and a stable civil society are being made in most of Iraq? They seem to forget that Saddam's gulag state was in cultural collapse long before the arrival of U.S. troops. Thus exchanges like the one between NBC's Tim Russert and Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command, in which Russert cited a Turkish journalist who claims, "everyone is the resistance." Abizaid, always the diplomat, replied that there now are more than 100,000 Iraqis serving in the nation's security forces, and that many have died fighting the insurgents. "If everybody in Iraq happened to be part of the resistance," Abizaid said, "they wouldn't be volunteering for the armed services."
The dismal temper toward Iraq is partly the result of America's lingering Vietnam syndrome, but only partly. Also at work is a psychological mood much like the cynicism -- and isolationism -- in vogue after the First World War.
Political and religious leaders had been so chastened by the war's devastation that by the 1930s many couldn't imagine any democratic purpose or principle worth defending with American blood. Thus, by the time Hitler began his march on Europe, intellectuals writing for the Nation as well as the Christian Century saw little difference between Anglo-American democracy and German Fascism. They assumed that a contest against Hitler would produce nothing but chaos. "It is not a war to preserve civilization!" intoned Christian Century editor Charles Morrison in May 1940. "It is the war itself that is destroying civilizations -- destroying it increasingly with each day that the war lasts, and destroying it definitively if it lasts to the point of victory, no matter which side wins" (emphasis added).
In a nation determined to stay out of another European conflict, only a handful of stout souls challenged these arguments. Methodist thinker Lynn Harold Hough saw a generation of leaders "engrossed by their own psychopathic glooms." They'd become embittered with democracy -- and indifferent to international tyranny. The editors at Fortune magazine, of all places, accused anti-war ministers of betraying their own spiritual values: Their pessimism about a war to defeat Nazism was perfectly in sync with the cynical, materialistic spirit of the age. "The voice of the Church today, we find, is the echo of our own voices," the editors wrote. "And the result of this experience, already manifest, is disillusionment."
The spirit of disillusionment is back. Then, as now, it produces citizens reluctant to make moral distinctions, combat terrorism, or see the possibilities for securing a measure of justice in an unjust world.
The Bush administration seems to have discarded its rosy illusions about nation-building in Iraq. It's time for the critics to exchange their cynicism for a tough-minded, yet hopeful realism. They might take a cue from Ayad Allawi. "The Iraqi citizens know better than anyone the horrors of dictatorship," Allawi said. "This is a past we will never revisit."
Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and editor of the forthcoming book, The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire