TCS Daily

Second Thoughts in Both Directions

By Michael Totten - February 21, 2005 12:00 AM

The election in Iraq has done to some on the anti-war left what the revelations of torture in Abu Ghraib prison did to others on the hawkish right.

Mark Brown wonders aloud in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times: What if Bush has been right about Iraq all along?

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart said something similar to Fareed Zakaria. "What if Bush, the president, ours, has been right about this all along? I feel like my world view will not sustain itself and I may, and again I don't know if I can physically do this, implode."

Richard Gwyn almost surely was gritting his teeth when he wrote his latest for the Toronto Star. "Here it is time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language. That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right."

Liberal blogger Jeff Simmermon wrote the most searing and honest reconsideration of all. He describes himself as "a terrifically loudmouthed critic" of the Bush Administration, but he nevertheless felt compelled to visit a polling center for expat Iraqis on their election day. What he heard and saw overwhelmed him.

One Iraqi he met, whose three uncles were murdered by Saddam Hussein, lives part-time in the US and recently built a high school in Fallujah. "Almost all Iraqis in America will vote Republican for the rest of their lives," he said, "as will their children and their children's children. George Bush has freed us and we are grateful forever for this."

Mr. Simmermon was particularly impressed with - and humbled by - a man who was nearly killed in the uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1998.

"You may think that you have felt dumb before, but let me tell you something: until you have stood in front of a man who knows real pain and told him that you are against your country's alleviation of his country's state-sponsored murderous suffering, you have not felt truly, deeply, like a total fucking moron.

"I still am no Bush fan, and I know that America got lied to. I know we shouldn't have gone, and I think Rove is as evil as they come. But through all this deception and lying, through all this dismemberment and pain, America has wrought a beautiful, fantastic side effect: joy, freedom and a hope for peace. Does it take lies and misdirection to do this?? Is this what the other side of justice is? I feel like such a whiner and I don't know what to think anymore. Ultimately, in total defiance of my mother and grandmother's teachings, two wrongs have made a right and my moral compass is tired and busted."

I'm not highlighting this essay in any "I told you so" spirit. I know how he feels. I've been made to feel like a total moron myself at least twice because of events in Iraq.

I protested the Persian Gulf War in 1991 in part because I saw Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as a fight over oil between two equally nasty regimes. War didn't seem like the answer. Kuwaitis were going to be lorded over by a dictatorship either way. What difference did it make if the capital was Kuwait City or Baghdad?

I had no idea (though I also had no excuse) that Saddam Hussein replaced Kuwait's benign and moderate monarchy with a horrific Stalinist police state. I was also blissfully unaware of Saddam's pan-Arabist imperialist plans. If I had met any Kuwaiti survivors, as Mr. Simmermon met Iraqi survivors, I know I would have felt like a complete and utter moron.

That was fourteen years ago. In the meantime I've retroactively changed my mind about the first Gulf War and thrown my support behind the second. Yet the second war rocked my world once again.

A Syrian friend of mine immigrated to the US two years ago. He and I occasionally have good-natured arguments about foreign policy. Some time ago during one of our conversations I promised him that the US and British troops would be kind to the people of Iraq, that we wanted only the best for them. Then came what Christopher Hitchens rightly called a moral Chernobyl: allegations of abuse and even torture in Abu Ghraib prison with the accompanying photos of smiling sadistic soldiers and guards.

It wasn't as bad as watching Al Qaeda snuff films or video shot inside Iraqi prisons under Baath Party management. But it was bad. Real bad.

This scandal -- no, this crime -- made a liar out of me. How can I ever look my Syrian friend in the eye and make the same promise again, that American troops will always treat people decently and with respect? Especially if we ever find ourselves in a war with Syria where his family still lives? The truth is that I can't. I was an utter fool for making that promise in the first place. In my zeal to see a liberated Iraq I had forgotten what should not be forgotten, that war is violence, not social work.

Iraq has made morons out of a lot of people, as perhaps it should. Getting history right in the present tense is hard work. It's probably impossible for any one person to do it consistently. And if somebody could do it, how would we know? In the 1960s Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution. He wisely said "It is too soon to tell."

Great events should shake people and change them. I have a hard time trusting someone who says this never happens to them. After the toppling of Saddam's regime, it happened first to the hawkish right. And now the anti-war left has had its turn.

The good news is that the latest earth-shaking news is good news. The Iraqi election was flawed, to be sure, but it still exceeded the expectations of most of us. The case for optimism is therefore stronger than it recently was. But the existence of unexpected and earth-shaking events should remind us that -- ultimately, as always -- it is still too soon to tell.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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