I am not one of those who believes democracy will come soon either to Iraq or to the entity to be called Palestine (when -- and if -- the Palestinians finally grasp that they cannot have both a state and a warrant to kill Israelis). There is no reason to believe either of these polities will succeed in the democratic experiment that has failed or, to be more precise, has not been seriously tried in the Arab world. But there are improvements short of democracy: police who are not routinely brutal, government that isn't routinely corrupt, and courts that are not satraps of politics. And the Bush administration deserves credit for making clear that it will not merely enable friendlier but just as murderous successor regimes in Baghdad and Ramallah.
It is not the pursuit of good government, however, that has put this country on a collision course with the leadership in Palestine and Iraq. Our motives are more fundamental than that: The U.S. government has made a decision that it will not permit either mass terror by Baghdad or random terror by the many Palestinian militias to set the norms of how others, in the region and beyond, live or die. This is the critical principle underlying our Iraqi policy and our Palestinian policy. It is, at root, a statement about how we define civilization and how we defend it from its unconventionally armed discontents.
And how exactly has this prerogative come to the United States? Iraq has been in violation of the international weapons-inspection regime for four years. Baghdad has again and again engaged in farcical negotiations about the inspectors' return, and many of our allies have willingly participated in the farce. But in reality, such offers are simply a ruse to buy Saddam Hussein time to do what inspections are supposed to prevent: building weapons of mass death. And since no international body is willing to accept the consequences of this fraud, the responsibility falls to the United States. Our obligation is an extension of the one we assumed at the end of the Gulf War, when the United States guaranteed the lives of the Kurds and Shia, whose kin Saddam had murdered in large numbers. Before World War II, no one, neither the Jews nor the Czechs nor the Chinese, were protected from their tormentors. But, had their lives mattered to the Allies, the United States and Britain might not have waited so long to take up arms and, thus, would have begun the war on a stronger footing. Morally, at least, the analogy holds for today. By defending the Kurds, who have experienced Saddam's gas firsthand, we are also defending ourselves.
As for the Palestinians, their leaders (and those of the Arab states) have been entreating us for decades to press the Israelis on their behalf, and we have done so. But not until this summer has an American president set even minimal conditions on our mediation. What President Bush has decided is that the United States cannot be an honest mediator so long as one of the parties to the conflict consists of mendacious murderers. If they want the United States to be their facilitator, they must abide by American terms. Otherwise, they're on their own.
It is impossible not to contrast America's new determination to incapacitate Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat with Bill Clinton's failed stewardship of these two dockets. Before he even entered the Oval Office, Clinton mused that it wouldn't take much to welcome the regime in Baghdad back into the family of nations. It was a colossal blunder, and then-Vice President Al Gore was quickly dispatched to explain that the president hadn't really meant what he said. But it wasn't just Clinton. At the State Department there was Warren Christopher, a languid gentleman easily persuaded that the ruthless foreign leaders with which he dealt were as languid as he. The National Security Council (NSC) was run by Anthony Lake, the Berkshire farmer who believed everyone was as well-intentioned as he thought himself to be. He was succeeded at the NSC by Sandy Berger, a trade lawyer who saw every conflict as an opportunity to devise another purchase-and-sale agreement. Christopher's successor at Foggy Bottom, Madeleine Albright, proved little better, dramatically failing to establish her intellectual authority even over a crowd filled with undergraduates at Ohio State.
This was prelapsarian foreign policy. When it came to Israel and its abutters, the Clintonites uttered the words "peace process" sanctimoniously, as if in some lordly benediction. But in the end, the peace process came to embody a highly ironic strategy. The more hideous the instances of Palestinian terror, the more Israel was expected to make truly perilous accommodations -- until Ehud Barak, under Clintonite pressure, offered the most perilous accommodations of all, and they were still not enough.
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