Sifting through my files in pursuing a particular topic, I happened upon an unrelated old clipping from The New York Times op-ed page. A column it was, dated March 22, 2004, by William Safire, the noted Times columnist who devoted more than three decades to explicating his vision of what he called "libertarian conservatism.'' He also was probably the country's most influential voice for the neoconservative outlook, including the view that America was uniquely positioned in the world to nurture "creeping democracy,'' which was the title of this particular column.
Safire ceased writing his column in 2005 and died of pancreatic cancer four years later. He isn't here to defend himself against those who might seek to parse his well-recognized polemical brilliance in search of underlying flaws in reasoning. But that brilliance in itself, when applied to the matter of George W. Bush's Iraq War, cries out for attention, given the course of Mideast events since that fateful 2003 invasion. Safire's own zest for disputatious inquiry provides an added measure of justification.
The column in question, written on the Bush war's first anniversary, was a paean to the salutary results of the invasion and what it was likely to unleash throughout the Middle East. We mourn our losses, he began, but noted in passing that they represented only 2 percent of our losses in Korea. Besides, tens of thousands of Iraqis were alive because Saddam Hussein had been removed from the scene.
He continued: "Nobody can be certain that Iraq will remain whole and free after we turn over sovereignty . But prospects look far better than predicted by the defeatists who claimed a year ago that political freedom had no chance of taking root in hostile Arab soil."
Safire saw in Iraq the emergence of free electricity, more televisions and air conditioning, greater flows of oil, schools and businesses coming to life, declining unemployment, U.S.-funded development projects, and an American-built civilian defense corps to go after cantankerous Islamists. With the emergence of an interim government, he predicted, ongoing terrorist activity "will be a nationalizing, not a destabilizing, force — directed not at occupiers, but against the terrorist invaders."
"Optimistic?" asked Safire, then answered no. "We have to believe in the popular success of a combination of democracy and prosperity" based on "the power of the human desire for freedom."
Moreover, in the Safire vision, Iraq was just the beginning. From Kuwait to Qatar, he wrote, Saddam's fate had been a "political tonic." Libya's Moammar Gadhafi was knuckling under from fear of being overthrown. Iran was "ripening for revolution." Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's royalty were nervous "because an arc of democracy bids fair to extend from Turkey through Iraq to Israel, with literate, enterprising populations blazing a path to liberating prosperity in the greater Middle East."
Then he turned his attention to Syria's "sullen" Bashar Assad, who also was "feeling the heat" — most notably from economic sanctions, supported by Congress, then being developed by Mr. Bush. This provided what Safire called a "unified American message — substantial largesse for free Iraq, contrasted with the start of serious sanctions for despotic Syria."
He concluded: "Success of democracy in Iraq is the key to democratic reform throughout the greater Middle East . When creeping democracy gradually brings a better life to people of the region, the basis for hatred and terror will erode and the suicide bomber will pass from the scene."
It is difficult to conceive of a more eloquent exposition of the Bush policy — or a more wrongheaded one. Those "defeatists" who questioned the likelihood of democracy sprouting in the Mideast soil have been proved far more prescient than the Safires of American discourse a dozen years ago. And millions of Americans, surveying the scene in the region today, now see just how naive and unrealistic it was to think the American grand strategy could work, that American good works could transform the culture of a region whose civilization is firmly rooted and zealously protected.
Today, Iraq is a wreck, large parts of it under command of Islamist forces that didn't exist under Saddam. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died as a result of the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, and anyone who sees a likely emergence of democracy there now is widely viewed as delusional. Libya, sans Gadhafi, is in chaos, under threat of an Islamist takeover. The Syrian nation, as artificial as it was, is now dead. Egypt's boss is today a different boss, but no less a product of that country's dictatorial military. No "arc of democracy" is visible in the region or even remotely in prospect. Almost nothing in the Safire grand vision is discernible today.
When it comes to polemical discourse, the greatest rebuttals are those delivered by history. History also administers lessons for those willing to study the remorseless force of its flow. The history of the Middle East over the past dozen years tells us that the Bush vision, as elucidated and celebrated by Safire, was simplistic, foolhardy and reckless.
Nothing illustrates that more vividly than a comparison of Safire's column of March 2004 with what came after in the tragic lands of the Islamic heartland.
Robert W. Merry, political editor of The National Interest, is the author most recently of "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians" (Simon and Schuster, 2012).