The Washington Times

We have now had the first shakeup in postwar Iraq reconstruction, key changes of top officials mere weeks after they began their tasks. The critical question has always been whether the United States is committed to genuine liberalization in Iraq. That’s because liberalization offers the only hope for a Greater Middle East free of such menaces to the United States and the West as al Qaeda, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

The emergence of an illiberal regime in Iraq whether in the form of an oppressive Shi’ite government, a Ba’athist resurgence or the emergence of a new strongman offers us no hope that we won’t sometime again have to try to weigh the threat posed by the covert programs of some future dictator with murky ties to God-knows-whom. The prospect is that of an unending sequence of “regime changes” in response to the latest manifestation of dangerous uncertainty combined with uncertain dangers. I don’t enjoy thinking about what that would be like.

So, should we be distressed at the need for a shakeup so soon in the exercise? No, we shouldn’t. A shakeup is not just a sign that things aren’t going well. A shakeup is a sign that things aren’t going as well as higher-ups believe they ought to be going and could be going.

Inaction can mean either that things are going along just fine or that those in charge A] do not understand things are going badly or B] do not believe that any action on their part will make a difference or C] do not care. Manifestly, things are not going along just fine in Iraq [though manifestly, they could be worse]. So, at least we see an unwillingness to paper over problems and a continuation of the will to deal with the massive task at hand.

I think it is likely that the United States will make every mistake in the book on the way to the liberalization of Iraq. That’s because we are writing the book as we go, and it will largely consist of lessons learned the hard way.

Oh, sure, somewhere in the dusty vastness of the stacks of the Library of Congress or deep in the bowels of the Pentagon’s storehouse of classified contingency plans, one can probably find intelligent guidance on every difficulty we are going to encounter. Safeguard the treasures of the national museum against looting: We knew we should do that. And we also knew we should do a couple of thousand other things in order to anticipate and prevent outcomes that did not, in fact, occur, even though we didn’t take those preventive measures, either. Selecting which of the thousands of possible anticipatory actions to take is art, not science, and inevitably, decisionmakers make mistakes [as do those second-guessing them, pace Iraq’s museum, which turns out to have been largely emptied before the U.S. forces got to Baghdad].

Should one trust the commitment of the Bush administration to this task? To those who say no, let me say that the president himself has done nothing but raise the stakes in terms of the political cost of failure. He toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and invited the new leader, Hamid Kharzai, to sit in his box at the 2002 State of the Union speech, thus, vesting the United States in the success of a new Afghanistan in ways the administration itself may not fully appreciate. He framed the task of the United States as promoting non-negotiable standards of human dignity. He articulated a bold new national strategy geared toward deterring bad actors from acquiring the worst weapons. He took the country to war against Saddam Hussein. And he landed by tailhook on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln for a victory speech, the substance and setting of which thrilled his supporters and stupefied his opponents.

If Mr. Bush doesn’t mean business in the reconstruction of Iraq, then there will come a point at which the gulf between the expectations he created and the reality he indifferently permits to emerge will devour him. I don’t think he’s likely to allow that to happen.

But what if he does? Is Iraq a George W. Bush show? If things there are going badly enough to contribute to the defeat of Mr. Bush in 2004, does the United States then cut and run under the new Democratic administration?

I don’t think so, for this reason: If the message that emerges with the Democratic Party’s selection of a nominee is some variation on “Come Home, America,” a la George McGovern, I don’t think Mr. Bush will have any greater difficulty defeating such a candidate than Richard Nixon did with Mr. McGovern in 1972. For a critique of Mr. Bush’s performance on Iraq to bite, it will have to credibly accuse him of not having done enough. It will, in essence, be a critique of his policy from his own premises.

No, I think one way or another, the United States is committed to getting Iraq right with all due allowance for myriad mistakes along the way.