TCS Daily

A Bridge Too Far

By Jack Birnbaum - May 4, 2004 12:00 AM

It was probably never to be, this Quixotic mission of President Bush and Tony Blair and the rest to remake the social and political milieu of the Arab world. Full marks to them for trying; something had to be done (and still does) to prevent the pathologies of Islamofascism from infecting civilization with their old hatreds and 8th-Century morality. And the vision of Arab states transformed into functioning, non-threatening societies was, truly, the most generous of all the options, excepting the one where we just smile and wait for the germs and the suicide bombers.

The model was the successful creation of modern, democratic nations in Japan and Germany out of the ashes of the Second World War. The difference, and the reason it will not work, is that those nations were utterly destroyed, so that everyone knew that the ancien regime was gone forever and the only way out was forward. The next time you're watching a televised report from Baghdad, look at the background: buildings intact, traffic moving, business booming, kids playing up to the cameras. Now think about what Berlin looked like as the Russian tanks were coming down the Unter den Linden, or Hiroshima on that August day when the sun exploded. Fallujah is not Dresden, and the Baathists are not being treated like the Nazis. The new Arab world can't be built upon the ruins of the old, because there are no ruins, either physical or societal.

That doesn't mean in any way that the war in Iraq was either immoral, illegal or unnecessary. The threat of future use or development of weapons of mass death was widely believed to be significant, and if one doesn't oh-so-cleverly limit oneself to a definition of the threat as being only ready-to-use stockpiles, it was indeed just that. The actions were authorized by a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and they resulted in the removal of a dictator and government that were responsible for two major regional wars, that were intimately involved in the web of international terrorism, and that murdered thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians, from the gassings of Halabja to the mass graves of Mahaweel. There is nothing to regret or apologize for; the people of Iraq may not wind up enjoying all the benefits of Western society, and they may never be grateful, but they will still be infinitely better off, and we safer.

In medicine, those who treat seriously mentally ill patients know that the biggest challenge is to get them to continue to take the medications that can make such a positive difference in their lives. Only when they become a threat to themselves or others can they be deprived of their liberty, at least temporarily, and be forced to undergo treatment. So it is with nations. We can't make them take their medicine and become moral contributors to the human enterprise. We can only do what is necessary to prevent harm to ourselves, try to do it as humanely as possible, and hope that the byproducts of our actions include benefits to them as well. So it is time, perhaps, to stop thinking about the best imaginable outcome, and instead settle for the best possible one, considering the state of world politics and the moral limitations free societies like ours place upon their war-fighting in the age of instant communications. Arab society will not become free and tolerant and self-critical, and much of the Islamic world will remain mired in ignorance and posturing and paranoia for the foreseeable future. From time to time we will have to again step forward and do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves and our children; perhaps it is now time to think about reserving our treasure and the lives of our youth for those future times. That will have to be enough, and there would be nothing even remotely immoral about it.

Someday, if and when there are Arab historians who can look back with an honest eye at the events of the first decade of this century, they will surely conclude that this was their chance, and they didn't take it. One is reminded of Abba Eban's famous dictum that the Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." So it seems for the whole Arab world. They were offered a bridge to all the benefits of modern civilization, but they wouldn't cross it. Perhaps, like the span at Arnhem, it was a bridge too far.

Jack Birnbaum is a frequent contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about The Next Threat.


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