October 2, 2003
"President Bush wants a blank check to rebuild roads & bridges in Iraq," declared the ad next to the news story I was reading on the Washington Post web site. "Click here to tell President Bush that we need to invest in roads and bridges here in America." The link led to StopTheBlankCheck.com, a site created by Bob Graham's presidential campaign to appeal to voters incensed by the administration's reconstruction plan for Iraq.
Graham, of course, is only one of many Democrats denouncing Bush's $20.3 billion request (which is part of an $87 billion request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). Republicans have attacked it, too. "Why should US citizens have to pay one additional penny for this rebuilding," demand Florida Congressman Tom Feeney and economist Stephen Moore in a column for National Review, "when Americans have already paid tens of billions of dollars for the liberation of Iraq with a huge military operation?"
These condemnations may make sense if the war in Iraq was a single, discrete moment in US foreign policy, unconnected to the larger war against international terrorism or to the prevention of another Sept. 11. If the war's essential purpose was achieved with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, it might indeed seem crazy to go on pouring tens of billions of dollars into Iraq for something Bush explicitly campaigned against in 2000: nation-building.
But the reality is very different. What the United States is undertaking in Iraq is about far more than Iraq alone. Iraq is only one battle, albeit a crucial one, in what will be a grueling campaign to liberate the Middle East from its long nightmare of fascism, dictatorship, and religious violence. World War IV, some have called it -- the 21st-century successor to the 20th century's Cold War, a conflict that went on for decades before finally ending with the shattering of the Iron Curtain.
The Cold War was World War III, and the United States had no choice but to fight and win it. Steep though the cost was, the cost of tolerating Soviet imperialism and terror would have been far steeper -- not only in dollars and cents, but in nations enslaved, in blood shed, and in human freedom crushed.
There is likewise no alternative to fighting and winning the war we are in now. We cannot leave Iraq as we found it, blasted by a quarter-century of Saddam's Stalinist brutality. We cannot abandon Iran to its dictatorial mullahs and ayatollahs. We cannot tolerate the terror-sponsoring Assad regime in Damascus, or condone Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi fanaticism and the royal family that enables it, or shrug off the lack of democracy in every Arab country, or ignore the region's virulent anti-Americanism and the militant Islamist radicalism that feeds it.
For a long time we did all those things. We played see-no-evil, subsidized corrupt governments, turned the other cheek to terrorism. And Sept. 11 was the result.
No more. The United States is on the offensive now, pushing back against the theocracy and tyranny that have kept most of the Middle East locked in the dark ages for so long. And central to that offensive is transforming Iraq from a place of unspeakable cruelty and repression into a tolerant, pro-Western anchor in the heart of the Arab world. The impact of such a transformation on the region would be electrifying. Democratic reformers would be emboldened. Terrorists would be weakened. And scores of millions of ordinary Arabs, witnessing the rise of Free Iraq, would begin demanding freedom for themselves.
There is no guarantee of success. But the early signs in Iraq are encouraging.
"Anyone who knew Iraq before liberation and who visits the country now is immediately struck by the impact that the feeling of freedom has had on almost everyone," writes the journalist Amir Taheri, who has been covering Arab and Muslim affairs for more than 30 years. "A society where people hardly spoke to one another, let alone to strangers, is bustling with talk, debates, disputes, and demonstrations for every cause under the sun. Thousands of banned books are on sale in the streets, and over 200 newspapers and magazines have started publication. People are no longer afraid to turn on their radios and TVs as loud as they wish; there is no Mukhabarat" -- Saddam's secret police -- "to eavesdrop."
Our worst enemies -- the terrorists who plan mass murder, the ideological fanatics who inflame them, the autocrats and strongmen who protect them -- suffered a setback when America and its allies won the war against Saddam. But that blow was nothing compared with the crushing defeat they will experience if America and its allies win the peace. Yes, the reconstitution of Iraq will cost a lot of money. Yes, it will send an already unbalanced budget even deeper into deficit. Yes, it will mean fewer dollars for public (or pork barrel) projects here at home.
But there is no alternative, just as there was no alternative to reconstituting Germany and Japan after World War II. Is it worth spending $87 billion to change Iraq into a bulwark of peace, democracy, and pro-Western solidarity? Is it ever. It would be a bargain at twice the price.