Mark Steyn admits that he’s been wrong about a lot in the past three years — but not about the big things
New Hampshire, 5 March 2005
The other day in the Guardian Martin Kettle wrote: ‘The war was a reckless, provocative, dangerous, lawless piece of unilateral arrogance. But it has nevertheless brought forth a desirable outcome which would not have been achieved at all, or so quickly, by the means that the critics advocated, right though they were in most respects.’
Very big of you, pal. And I guess that’s as close to a mea culpa as we’re going to get: even though Bush got everything wrong, it turned out right. Funny how that happens, isn’t it? In a few years’ time, they’ll have it down pat — just like they have with Eastern Europe. Oh, the Soviet bloc [the Middle East thugocracies] was bound to collapse anyway. Nothing to do with that simpleton Ronnie Raygun [Chimpy Bushitler]. In fact, all Raygun [Chimpy] did was delay the inevitable with his ridiculous arms build-up [illegal unprovoked Halliburton oil-grab], as many of us argued at the time: see my 1984 column ‘Yuri Andropov, The Young, Smart, Sexy New Face Of Soviet Communism’ [see the April 2004 Spectator column ‘Things Were Better Under Saddam: The coalition has destroyed Baathism, says Rod Liddle, and with it all hopes of the emergence of secular democracy’ — and yes, that really ran in these pages, on 17 April, not 1 April.]
By the way, when’s the next Not In Our Name rally? How about this Saturday? Millions of Nionists can flood into Trafalgar Square to proclaim to folks in Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority that all the changes under way in the region are most certainly Not In Their Name. Among the celebrity Nionists, Harold Pinter should be available to denounce Blair as a ‘war criminal’ and a ‘hired Christian thug’ one mo’ time. For as the Guardian reported this week, the great man announced that ‘he has decided to abandon his career as a playwright in order to concentrate exclusively on politics’.
That’s great news, isn’t it? One of the reasons Mr Pinter was right only ‘in most respects’ (as Martin Kettle would put it) is that he had to fit being right about everything in between composing 11-minute plays. Now he can devote his energies to it full time I’ve no doubt he’ll be right in all respects.
As for me, I got a lot of things wrong these last three years, but, looking at events in the Middle East this last week, I’m glad that, unlike the Nionist Entity, I got the big stuff right. On 8 May 2003, a couple of weeks after the fall of Saddam, I wrote in the Speccie’s then sister paper the Jerusalem Post:
‘You don’t invade Iraq in order to invade everywhere else, you invade Iraq so you don’t have to invade everywhere else.’
And so it’s turned out.
Some of the reasons for starting the remaking of the Middle East in Iraq were obvious within a day or two of 11 September. As I said back then, by his sheer survival, Saddam Hussein had become a symbol of America’s lack of will. As long as he was around, the message to Gaddafi, Arafat, Assad, Mubarak, the House of Saud and the rest of the gang was that we were still in a 10 September world. But the other reasons for starting in Iraq weren’t all so clear. After the liberation, the doom-mongers dusted down the old Bumper Boys’ Book of the British Empire and rattled off a zillion pseudo-authoritative backgrounders beginning, ‘Iraq was a new country cobbled together from several former Ottoman provinces, its lines drawn by the Europeans.’ That was Mark Mazower in the Independent. You get the cut of his jib: phony state, the slapdash creation of the Colonial Office, you can never make it work.
In fact, the artificially cobbled together country is one reason it’s worked so well. The Shia are the biggest group, but, even if they were utterly homogeneous, which they’re not, they’re not so big that they can impose their will easily on the Kurds and the Sunni. When the West’s headless chickens were running around squawking that there were more than a hundred parties on the ballot, it was all going to be one almighty mess, they failed to understand that the design flaw of Iraq is paradoxically its greatest strength: the traditional Arab solution — the local strongman — was not available. Instead, in the run-up to the election and in the month since, we’ve seen various groupings come together, hammer out areas of agreement, reach out to other coalitions, identify compromise positions, etc. — in a word, politics. The sight of eight million Iraqis going to the polls was profoundly moving to their neighbours in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt etc. But it was all the pluralist multi-party smoke-filled-room stuff that caught the fancy of the frustrated political class in those other countries. It would have been possible to find a friendly authoritarian Musharraf type and install him on one of Saddam’s solid gold toilets, but it would have been utterly uninspiring to the world beyond Iraq’s borders. It would have missed the point of the exercise.
I can understand why the transnational jet set — the EU, the UN, the NGO neo-imperialists, the foreign correspondents for CNN, the BBC and so forth — have a preference for strong, centralised states. The State Department was still in favour of keeping the Soviet Union together even after the Soviets had given up on it. It’s a pain in the neck to have to update your Rolodex every half-century or so, and when you do, you want to be able to write ‘President-for-Life Sy Kottik, also Defence Minister, Foreign Minister, Oil-for-Food Programme Director, Press Accreditation Supervisor, the one-stop shop for all your government-contacts needs — call Baghdad 001’. It’s a real nuisance to have to pencil in the Kurdish guy, and the Kurdish opposition guy, and the Sunni rejectionist, and the Sunni accommodationist and the secular Shiite and the theocrat Shiite; and that’s just for Kirkuk municipal council.
But it’s grossly condescending to assume that the Iraqi people would share your priorities. All through the worst moments of the insurgency — the real horrors in Fallujah, not the second-hand Nissan set alight on the edge of the Green Zone so the herd of foreign correspondents can film it from their hotel balconies — all through that darkest period, a few of us insisted that between two thirds and three quarters of Iraq was up and running smoothly with functioning government institutions and nascent political parties. And we were right. Don’t take my word for it — ask King Abdullah, who’s planning to duplicate some of Iraq’s political structures in Jordan.
A couple of years back, I went to hear Paul Wolfowitz. I knew him only by reputation — the most sinister of all the neocons, the big bad Wolfowitz, the man whose name started with a scary animal and ended Jewishly. In fact, he was a very soft-spoken chap, who compared the challenges of the Middle East with America’s experiments in democracy-spreading after the second world war. He said he thought it would take less time than Japan, and maybe something closer to the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. I would have scoffed, but he knew so many Iraqis by name — not just Ahmed Chalabi, but a ton of others.
Around the same time, I bumped into Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister and man of letters. He was just back from Egypt, where he’d been profoundly moved when he’d been asked to convey the gratitude of the Arab people to President Chirac for working so tirelessly to prevent a tragic war between Christianity and Islam. You don’t say, I said. And, just as a matter of interest, who asked you to convey that? He hemmed and hawed and eventually said it was President Mubarak. Being a polite sort, I rolled my eyes only metaphorically, but decided as a long-term proposition I’d bet Wolfowitz’s address book of real people against Villepin’s hotline to over-the-hill dictators. The lesson of these last weeks is that it turns out Washington’s Zionists know the Arab people a lot better than Europe’s Arabists.
Islamism, with its plans to destroy America, take back Europe, colonise Australia and set you up with 72 virgins, may be bonkers but it’s a big idea. And you can’t beat it with a small, shrivelled idea like another decade or three of Mubarak or Assad or some such. The Bush administration decided that the only big idea they had to sell was liberty. The Europeans and the Europhile US media mostly scoffed. They’d been here before. Back in the Cold War, the Americans were able to use the phrase ‘the free world’ without irony; the French, Germans and even the British never were. This time round, the media assured us that what Iraqis wanted was not freedom but ‘security’. They didn’t all go as far as Rod Liddle, pining for the smack of firm Saddamite government, but they subscribed to the same general thesis: freedom is some airy-fairy illusion; in Saddam’s day, the streets were safe and there was no crime, apart from the ones he was committing. All wrong, as wrong as the ‘brutal Afghan winter’ and all the other media fictions. On 30 January, Bush’s big idea squared off against the head-hackers’ big idea — you vote, you die — and we know which one the Iraqi people chose, and which the rest of the region, to one degree or another, is following.
Here’s another line of mine that looks pretty good this week — my claim back in January that this is ‘the most important year in the region since Churchill drew the map of the modern Middle East in 1922’. I’ll stand on that one. But what I’d like to know is this: when Martin Kettle says he and the Nionists were right ‘in most respects’, which respects is he thinking of? What exactly did the Nionist Entity get right? That the seething ‘Arab street’ would rise up? Well, after three and a half years they finally did — in Beirut. There never was an ‘Arab street’: that’s part of the same reductive thinking that leads Dominique de Villepin to pass off some feeble schmoozing from Mubarak as the voice of the Muslim people. The entire concept of the ‘Arab street’ was lazy and condescending.
With hindsight, the fellow travellers were let off far too easily when the Iron Curtain fell like a discarded burka. Little more than a decade later, they barely hesitated a moment before jumping in on the wrong side of history yet again — and this time without the excuse that the ideological virtues of communism had merely gone awry in practice. It’s hard to make that argument about Islamism or Baathism, though Rod Liddle gamely gave the latter a whirl. But personally I hope if ever I find myself one of the unfortunate subjects of a totalitarian dictatorship, that it’s Bush and the Republicans who take up my cause rather than the Left.
The other day I found myself, for the umpteenth time, driving in Vermont behind a Kerry/Edwards supporter whose vehicle also bore the slogan ‘FREE TIBET’. It must be great to be the guy with the printing contract for the ‘FREE TIBET’ stickers. Not so good to be the guy back in Tibet wondering when the freeing thereof will actually get under way. For a while, my otherwise not terribly political wife got extremely irritated by these stickers, demanding to know at a pancake breakfast at the local church what precisely some harmless hippy-dippy old neighbour of ours meant by the slogan he’d been proudly displaying decade in, decade out: ‘But what exactly are you doing to free Tibet?’ she demanded. ‘You’re not doing anything, are you?’ ‘Give the guy a break,’ I said back home. ‘He’s advertising his moral virtue, not calling for action. If Rumsfeld were to say, “Free Tibet? Jiminy, what a swell idea! The Third Infantry Division go in on Thursday”, the bumper-sticker crowd would be aghast.’
But for those of us on the arrogant unilateralist side of things, that’s not how it works. ‘FREE AFGHANISTAN’. Done. ‘FREE IRAQ’. Done. Given the paintwork I pull off every time I have to change the sticker, it might be easier for the remainder of the Bush presidency just to go around with ‘FREE [INSERT YOUR FETID TOTALITARIAN BASKET-CASE HERE]’. Not in your name? Don’t worry, it’s not.