The View From The Top

Five Washington Augusts ago, for me, is not just a different time; it is a distant country. At the White House, we debated the nuances of stem-cell research. The president delivered a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars without the need to mention any foreign wars. Americans obsessed on the mysterious affair of Chandra Levy. A spate of shark attacks was headline news.

Everything we saw took us further from the reality we could not see. Five Augusts ago, hijackers in Florida trained in gyms, bought small knives and practiced flying in rented aircraft. In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders argued about targets and strategy,

until bin Laden gave his final orders. Nineteen tickets were booked and purchased, and leftover funds were wired frugally back to Al Qaeda. "And then," as President Bush said, "there came a day of fire."

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, while the president was on the road in Florida, I was working at home on a never-delivered speech announcing a long-forgotten initiative called Communities of Character. Warned by my deputy about the first attack, I headed by car toward the White House, neared the Pentagon and saw a plane in abnormally low descent--so low I could see the windows. Turned around by the police on the highway and sent home, I was finally able to call my evacuated staff at (of all places) the D.C. offices of Chrysler. Then came the first speech to the nation, with too much sentiment, not enough resolve and the president stiff and small. On Friday, a quiet motorcade in the rain to the National Cathedral; and the president filling his office completely; and the whole of official Washington singing, "Glory, glory, hallelujah. His truth is marching on." Starting in those days, I felt not merely part of an administration, but part of a story; a noble story, but with a happy ending by no means assured.

From those events, President Bush drew a fixed conclusion: as long as the Middle East remains a bitter and backward mess, America will not be secure. Dictators in that region survive by finding scapegoats for their failures--feeding conspiracy theories about Americans and Jews--and use religious groups to destroy reformers and democrats. Oil money strengthens elites, buys rockets, funds research into weapons of mass destruction, builds radical schools across Africa and Asia and finds its way to terrorist organizations. Terrorist organizers exploit the humiliated and hopeless--channeling their search for meaning into acts of murder--and plot, as London 2006 proves, to surpass the mad ambitions of 9/11.

In the traditional diplomatic view, this chaos can be contained through the skillful management of "favorable" dictators. But what if the status quo in the Middle East that produced Muhammad Atta and his friends and successors cannot be contained, or boxed up, or bought off? What if the false and shallow stability of tyranny is actually producing people and movements that make the whole world less stable? And what if the problem is getting dramatically worse as the technology of weapons of mass destruction becomes more democratically distributed?

On this theory, President Bush set out a series of policy changes from the weeks after 9/11 to his second Inaugural in 2005. Threats would be confronted before they arrive, the sponsors of terror would be held equally accountable for terrorist murders and America would promote democracy as an alternative to Islamic fascism, the exploitation of religion to impose a violent political utopia. Every element of the Bush doctrine was directed toward a vision: a reformed Middle East that joins the world instead of resenting and assaulting it.

That vision has been tested on nearly every front, by Katyusha rockets in Haifa, car bombs in Baghdad and a crackdown on dissent in Cairo. Condoleezza Rice calls this the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East, and it is a complicated birth. As this violent global conflict proceeds, and its length and costs become more obvious, Americans should keep a few things in mind.

First, the nation may be tired, but history doesn't care. It is not fair that the challenge of Iran is rising with Iraq, bloody and unresolved. But, as President Kennedy used to say, "Life is not fair."

Behind all the chaos and death in Lebanon and northern Israel, Iran is the main cause of worry in the West Wing--the crisis with the highest stakes. Its government shows every sign of grand regional ambitions, pulling together an anti-American alliance composed of Syria, terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, and proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite other disagreements, all the factions in Iran--conservative, ultraconservative and "let's usher in the apocalypse" fanatics--seem united in a nuclear nationalism.

Some commentators say that America is too exhausted to confront this threat. But presidential decisions on national security are not primarily made by the divination of public sentiments; they are made by the determination of national interests. And the low blood-sugar level of pundits counts not at all. Here the choice is not easy, but it is simple: can America (and other nations) accept a nuclear Iran?

In foreign-policy circles, it is sometimes claimed that past nuclear proliferation--say, to India or Pakistan--has been less destabilizing than predicted. In the case of Iran, this is wishful thinking. A nuclear Iran would mean a nuclear Middle East, as traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey feel pressured to join the club, giving every regional conflict nuclear overtones. A nuclear Iran would also give terrorist groups something they have previously lacked and desperately want: a great-power sponsor. Over time, this is the surest way to put catastrophic technology into the hands of a murderous few. All options have dangers and drawbacks. But inaction might bring the harshest verdict of history: they knew much, and they did nothing.

The war in Iraq, without doubt, complicates our approach to Iran. It has stretched the Army and lowered our reservoir of credibility on WMD intelligence. But Iran's destabilizing nuclear ambitions are not a guarded secret; they are an announced strategy. If the lesson drawn from Iraq is that the world is too unknowable and complicated for America to act in its interests, we will pay a terrible price down the road.

As these events unfold, our country will need a better way of doing business, a new compact between citizens and their government. Americans have every right to expect competence and honesty about risks and mistakes and failures. Yet Americans, in turn, must understand that in a war where deception is the weapon and goal of the enemy, every mistake is not a lie; every failure is not a conspiracy. And the worst failure would be a timid foreign policy that allows terrible threats to emerge.

There are still many steps of diplomacy, engagement and sanctions between today and a decision about military conflict with Iran--and there may yet be a peaceful solution. But in this diplomatic dance, America should not mirror the infinite patience of Europe. There must be someone in the world capable of drawing a line--someone who says, "This much and no further." At some point, those who decide on aggression must pay a price, or aggression will be universal. If American "cowboy diplomacy" did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

A second point: the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is messy, difficult, but no one has a better idea.

There is no question that democratic societies are more likely to respect human rights, less susceptible to ideological extremism, more respectful of neighboring countries, more easily trusted with nuclear technology.

Yet the democracy agenda is under heavy questioning. Some critics--who might be called soft realists--concede the spread of democracy is desirable. It is just not possible. They argue that democratic governments require democratic cultures, which develop over centuries, and have never developed at all in the Arab Middle East.

Realism, however, is not always identical to pessimism. Arab societies, in fact, have strong traditions of private association, private property and a contractual relationship between ruler and ruled. It is not realism to ignore unprecedented elections in Afghanistan and Iraq and serious reforms elsewhere. The past half century has shown that the cultural obstacles to democracy are less formidable than many predicted, from Roman Catholic Southern Europe to Orthodox Eastern Europe to Confucian Asia. Our times provide strong evidence that liberty improves life and that people in many cultures eventually prefer liberty to slavery. And Americans, of all people, should not be surprised or embarrassed when our deepest beliefs turn out to be true.

Other critics of the democracy agenda--what might be called hard realists--think democracy in the Middle East may be possible, but it is not desirable because elections are likely to bring anti-American radicals like Hamas to power.

It is certainly true that democracy means more than voting. Successful democracies eventually require the rule of law, the protection of minorities, the defeat of corruption, a free press, religious liberty and open economies. Any democracy agenda worthy of the name will promote all these things.

But it is something else to claim that democracy itself is a threat in the Middle East because dictatorships are more stable. This duplicates the argument of the dictators themselves: it is us or the Islamists ... the junta or the jihad. But the choice is false. Political oppression in nations like Egypt has increased the standing and appeal of radicals and forced all opposition into the mosque, while state media continues to provide a steady supply of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. The real choice to be made in the Middle East is between radicals and democrats; both groups have been emboldened by the events of the last five years. We may have limited time to take the side of democratic forces--not merely as an act of altruism, but as an act of self-defense.

Five Augusts from 9/11, in a summer of new fears, in a war on terror that has lasted longer than World War II, public weariness is understandable. And that exhaustion is increasingly reflected in our politics. In a conservative backlash against the president's democratic idealism. In a liberal backlash that has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Ned Lamont, in his primary victory over Sen. Joe Lieberman, summed up the case this way: "We are going to get our troops out of Iraq ... we're going to start investing in our own country again." Lamontism--the elevation of flinching to a foreign policy--is McGovernism, and a long way from "bear any burden, pay any price."

But these political conflicts seem pale and puny in comparison with the broader civilizational conflict that engages us--a reality we cannot claim we do not see. Our enemies set out their goal with neon clarity. To kill, as intended in the London plot, as many as their technology allows. To seek technologies that will make radical Islam a global power, allowing new killing on an unimagined scale. The response of many Americans to all of this is ... up in the air. And, unfortunately, the demands of history may just be beginning, requiring more engagement, more sacrifice, more promotion of democracy, more foreign assistance to raise failed states where dangers gather. Setting out this case will fall to presidents of both parties, in calm and crisis--and making it will always be difficult in a weary hour. But necessity, in the end, makes a stronger argument than the finest rhetoric. And from London to Lebanon, history is proving that peace is not a natural state; it is achieved by a struggle of uncertain duration. In that struggle, the cynical, the world-weary, the risk-averse will not inherit the earth.