Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home” and the author of seventeen books, most recently “Parenting with Fire: Lighting Up the Family with Passion and Inspiration” (Penguin).
The failure of the noble American effort in Iraq marks the death of modern political idealism. Those of us who supported the war dared believe that our Arab brothers and sisters might finally have a better alternative to benevolent despotism, that Israel might finally have a long-term future in the Middle East based on the spread of human liberty and democracy, and that human nature might finally triumph in its eternal desire to live and breathe free.
Sadly, all those conclusions have turned out to be uninformed wishful thinking. Now we’re back to most people believing that Arabs are too primitive for democracy, Israel is the source of all conflict in the Middle East, and that the idea that people want to be free is an ignorant dream of discredited neocons.
I spend most of my time around people who hate President Bush – a legacy, I assume, of my many years at Oxford and my work in the TV industry, both of which are very liberal. Most of them gloated at Bush’s thumping in the mid-term elections. I explained to them that we had all lost, not just the Republicans.
Does anyone believe that America, or any other country for that matter, is going to even consider invading another autocracy whose dictator is murdering his people? With the failure of the Bush Doctrine, we are back to Clintonism – the practice of countries standing by and watching as genocide after genocide decimates innocent people. Three genocides occurred while President Clinton was in office – in Srebrenica, in Kosovo, and in Rwanda. When it came to the latter, not only would the United States not send troops to end a slaughter that was killing four hundred Africans every hour, but Clinton refused to have a single meeting with his senior staff about the killings through its three-month duration. Only in Kosovo was he finally pressured to act.
This is not to say that Clinton is an uncaring man, only that he did not wish for America to get involved in messy affairs from which it could not disentangle itself. Well, after Iraq you’re going to see this kind of thinking become so entrenched among the West’s political leadership that I shudder for the world’s future victims.
And the biggest victim of all is going to be Israel. Just wait for the kind of pressure that Israel is going to face in the push to fix Iraq. How is it that Shi’a and Sunnis are killing each other in Baghdad, but James Baker and the Iraq Study Group highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the points that will bring peace in Iraq? Is there any connection? Shi’a and Sunni have been killing each other for centuries. Yet even “friends” of Israel, like King Abdullah of Jordan, are telling President Bush that the only way to fix Iraq is to pressure Israel. So once again, the pressure will be taken off Arab dictators to democratize, and placed instead on Israel to give up what little land it has left.
I’m amazed that my liberal friends are cheering Bush’s failure. Do they not realize that the failure of the war in Iraq has set back the cause of Arab democracy by fifty years, at least? Do they really want to join the ranks of Egypt’s Mubarak, the House of Saud, Bashir Al Assad, and Adolph Ahmadinejad of Iran with their chorus of “I told you so”?
Our failure has emboldened all of these cruel autocrats. Do we really want to gloat with them?
And how did we get here? It hurts me to say it, but the failure must be placed squarely on the shoulders of President Bush. I take no pleasure in criticizing a really good man when he is down, and President Bush is the ultimate idealist who ought to be supported rather than criticized. I still remember listening to his incredible second inaugural speech and his stirring words about freedom and democracy.
But Bush knew what the stakes in Iraq were. He said it a thousand times. If Iraq succeeded then this would prove the ultimate victory of idealism over pragmatism in our time. A victory in Iraq would have been the deathblow to other cruel dictators like Assad and Ahmadinejad. And yet here we are, just a few years later, with James Baker and Co. pushing Bush to involve these abusers of human rights in the effort to repair Iraq.
Given what the stakes were, why did Bush fight the war on the cheap? Why did we not go in with overwhelming force? If we sent 500,000 troops to fight Saddam in the first Gulf War, which did not involve an occupation, why did we send a fifth of that when we had to rebuild an entire country?
I do not know the answer to these questions. Less so do I know how Iraq can be fixed. What I do know is that this is a difficult time to be an idealist. Which is why I turn back as my refuge to religion, with its eternal belief that man is created in God’s image; that he has no master other than the Creator; that he is born, and inwardly yearns, to be free; that even if he is unaware of that fact today, he will awaken to it tomorrow; and that one day, as the prophet Isaiah promised, the wolf will lie down the lamb.
Our Arab brethren, who today prey on each other just as they prey on Israel, will one day return to their own religious idealism and choose to live in peace with their neighbors.
In times like these we have to remember that there have always been times like these. And it is idealism rather than pragmatism – belief in the future rather than reconciliation to the past – that has gotten us through the dark times and brought us to the light.