As walls were falling all around the Soviet bloc in 1989, east Europeans were either dancing on the rubble or rushing west by the trainload. Two years later the Soviet Union was history, and with it a 74-year blight on humanity. Naturally, Cold War hagiographers gave Ronald Reagan all the credit. Forty-five years of containment couldn't possibly have been more than a warm-up act and 100 million eastern Europeans couldn't have budged history their way like a good old Hollywood story line. Reagan himself believed that in 1945 he'd been among the soldiers liberating Nazi death camps even though his war experience was restricted to a few movie studios in Burbank. So it was more a sequel than a stretch to make him the world's savior.
His apostles claimed that deploying the Pershing II medium-range nuclear missile in Europe, his "evil empire" branding of the Soviet Union and his missile defense scheme had pushed the Soviets toward bankruptcy and the bargaining table. The claims weren't without their grainy truths. But the "evil empire" was long past its evil peak in the 1980s and was as rotten and desiccated economically as every Soviet leader going back to Leonid Brezhnev had looked physically (until Mikhail Gorbachev's brief botox era known as glasnost). And star wars? It will be 22 years ago Wednesday that Reagan made his famous "Strategic Defense Initiative" speech promising to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" with a space-based shield. More than $135 billion and a trail of failed tests later, the missile defense system is the punch-line to every suitcase terrorist's favorite joke. It will sooner bankrupt us than protect us, and may well endanger us for still diverting $1 billion a month on the wrong threat.
Then again bankrupting diversions posing as favors to the world have a long tradition in the Good Empire. Which brings us to Iraq, the Middle East's fibrillating tyrannies and George W. -- Bush or Washington, it doesn't matter which. The projectionists of Middle East freedom are happy to make the superb confusion. It is one of many, beginning with the cause-and-effect mania linking Bush to elections in Iraq and Palestinian territories, democracy demonstrations in Beirut, lip-service elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
To say that Bush's policies had nothing to do with what The New York Times called a "Mideast climate change" is, of course, stupid. But to give it more than token credit is equally stupid. When the world's only superpower invades a fourth-rate tyranny and plunks down $300 billion along the way, you expect some payoff. The disgrace is how little the payoff has been, how poorly thought out, how bloody. The pro-democracy stirrings elsewhere in the Middle East don't vindicate Bush's policies so much as they prove how much he could have achieved politically and diplomatically, if he'd had the will and the diplomatic skills.
The whole region is like the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. It is a collection of corrupt, bankrupt, politically reprehensible societies held together by totalitarian perversions of Islam (and lavish American and western indulgence). Like the Soviet bloc, it was a matter of time before the crumbling began. Containment and pressure were the key. Invasion was the trap. The Middle East has a long, deeply scarred memory of western meddling, for good reason. The West's treatment of the Middle East since the Crusades, through colonialism's bludgeoning and up to the Reagan administration's coddling of Saddam Hussein has been a blight of its own. Whatever the aims of the Iraq invasion, the American occupation is as likely to retard the crumbling of Mideastern tyrannies as to hurry it along, or foment new ones. American credibility is suspect, and any western occupation gives regressive maniacs of the Hezbollah and al-Qaida variety a rallying point.
The Iraq war's diversion from the so-called war on terror and the occupation's effects on the U.S. Treasury, which we will all feel soon, are the other rising tides of this supposed climate change. So maybe the Middle East is warming up to democracy. But at what cost?
An Arab thaw will mean nothing to me -- an ex-Lebanese who'd like nothing more than to see his ancestral land reclaim its cedar-like dignity -- if it compromises the freedoms and economic solidity of my adopted land. I suspect it will mean nothing to my compatriots from here to Kansas to the Cascades, either. And yet with every deficit, every renewed tax cut while war bills pile up, every enforcement of the Patriot Act, every excuse for Guantanamo and an archipelago of torturers, every blank check for Iraq and every scaled-back social commitment at home, the compromises are piling up. A democratic renewal would be a wonderful thing. I'd like to see it in America first.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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