Spectacle and History in Iraq

Monday night, in his comments at the annual Menorah lighting at the White House, President Bush began by noting he had “had a pretty eventful weekend.”  He was not referring to the shoe thrown at him, but something larger:

So I slipped out Saturday night to Andrews Air Force Base, boarded Air Force One, and landed in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday afternoon.  It was an unbelievable experience, it really was, to stand next to the President of a democracy and hold my hand over my heart as they played the national anthem in front of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

In a roundtable with the Associated Press yesterday, Condoleezza Rice was asked about “this, you know, sort of signature moment of a guy throwing a shoe and saying, you know, this is your goodbye present.”  The AP reporter wanted to know “why should Americans think that we have done a lasting and valuable thing in Iraq?  And I know you’re going to say the removal of a tyrant, but beyond – beyond the change of” – at which point Rice interrupted him with this answer:

SECRETARY RICE:  The removal of a tyrant is a pretty big thing.  Look, so a reporter threw a shoe, which, by the way, is a kind of sign of the freedom that people feel in Iraq, but somehow what was missed was the extraordinary moment for the President of the United States to go to Iraq, of all places, and to be received by a democratically elected Prime Minister, a democratically elected Presidency Council, with full honors at the Presidential Palace with the Iraqi band playing the national anthem of the United States of America.  I think that is far more salient than one guy who decided to throw a shoe.

On September 11, 2007, at a time when most of the country and its elite simply wanted to withdraw from Iraq, Norman Podhoretz published World War IV:  The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, his sustained defense of the Bush Doctrine – the combination of (a) pre-emptive military action to preclude anti-American fascist states from amassing weapons of mass destruction, and (b) a forward strategy of freedom to compete with anti-American fascist ideology.  The first part of that strategy had led to an amazingly successful three-week campaign to remove Saddam Hussein, followed by the much more difficult task of bringing representative government to Iraq.

Podhoretz noted that opponents of the Bush Doctrine had sought to dismiss Iraq as merely a “civil war,” while they acknowledged (somewhat inconsistently) that it had attracted al Qaeda, who had not been there before.  But the involvement of al Qaeda — and Iran and Syria — demonstrated the Iraq conflict was no more a meaningless “civil war,” without wider consequences, than the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was simply a “civil war” unrelated to the future of fascism.  Podhoretz wrote of his amazement regarding charges that the Bush Doctrine had failed:

After all, Iraq had been liberated from one of the worst tyrants in the Middle East; three elections had been held; a decent constitution had been written; a government was in place; and previous unimaginable liberties were being enjoyed.  By what bizarre calculation did all this add up to failure?  And by whatever stranger logic was failure to be read into the fact that the forces opposed to democratization were fighting back with all their might?

In the book, Podhoretz expressed his belief that the hindsight of history would recognize George W. Bush had developed a strategic doctrine to meet a worldwide challenge, articulated it in a series of historic speeches (particularly the September 20, 2001 Address to Congress and the Second Inaugural Address), and remained remarkably steadfast in Iraq in the face of not only relentless criticism but extraordinary personal ridicule and demonization.

If history remembers the shoe, it will remember it was thrown by a reporter who was allowed in the room to ask harsh questions of the Iraqi prime minister and the American president, without fear for his life, and who – if he is tried for his assault on the president – will have a lawyer at his side and a public unafraid to speak out in his behalf.  History will record the shoe as evidence that as he left office at the end of 2008, the president who did not flinch was vilified by many, but had in fact achieved a pretty big thing.