The Washington Times

As one European participant noted at a conference on trans-Atlantic relations here sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, had significant stores of weapons of mass destruction been found in Iraq, Europeans who had opposed, or at least doubted the rationale for the war, would likely have been obliged to concede that the United States and its supporters had a point. There has been no such moral boost for the United States.

Assuming the current insurgency or resistance in Iraq can be overcome and, therefore, a Ba’athist resurgence forestalled, we are left with the moral prize of knowing that we have indeed successfully prevented Saddam Hussein from doing any further evil to Iraqis or to us through his future ambitions, whatever they may have been. To me, this is no small thing, not least because of the mass graves that keep turning up in Iraq, and especially because regime officials and scientists have indicated that Saddam conveyed to them every intention of restarting weapons programs as soon as he thought it would be prudent to do so, presumably upon escaping the U.N. sanctions regime.

But we come here to a certain epistemological problem. Suppose at the first signs of trouble, a coalition of outside military forces had entered Rwanda and imposed order, thereby preventing the genocide that occurred there. There would have been no genocide – but we would never have been able to know or say with certainty that we had prevented this thing which did not exist. And, it is all too easy to imagine substantial doubt of the kind expressed about Iraq with regard to the wisdom, efficacy and cost of this hypothetical Rwandan intervention.

Again, for me, prevention in Iraq is a success. For others, however – including, I would reckon, most of the Europeans here in Evian – it is not. These former Marshall Memorial Fellows are well-traveled in the United States, thanks at least in part to the program, and are in general committed to the success of trans-Atlantic relations. This meeting was no redoubt of the anti-American European left.

Do we have anything for them – anything that might bring them and others around to the conclusion – that even absent the discovery of caches of WMD, the Iraq war was justified and worth the cost? Well, we might. And that would be the development in Iraq of a decent, pluralist, tolerant society under a peaceable, liberalized democratic government.

There is a further underappreciated paradox to the failure to turn up stores of WMD in Iraq. Now, the success or failure of the project there turns entirely on the commitment of the United States and its partners in seeing reconstruction through to a successful conclusion.

Had we in fact found large stores of WMD, we would no doubt have put them on display to the world, claimed vindication for our policy and destroyed them once and for all. But would we have then been fully committed to the difficult business of Iraq’s reconstruction, especially once it turned out that one could not quite say that within each Iraqi breast beat the heart of a bourgeois, liberal democrat waiting to flourish in the modern world once the Ba’athist oppressors were gone?

I’d like to think so, but one wonders. Having pocketed our WMD vindication, might we not have been at least somewhat tempted to say to the Iraqis, “All right, well, best of luck to all of you,” on our way out the door?

Under current circumstances, that course would amount to unmitigated failure. An awareness of this fact, I think, provides a context for President Bush’s extraordinary speech last week at the National Endowment for Democracy announcing “a new policy – a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”

Mr. Bush began with a reference to a 1982 speech by Ronald Reagan at Westminster Palace in which Mr. Reagan declared Soviet communism a failure because of the system’s lack of respect for its own people. Mr. Bush might also have had in mind as a model the speech Mr. Reagan gave in Berlin some years later, the one in which the former president said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” That would make Mr. Bush’s speech Thursday at a minimum a moral marker, one that sets a standard of judgment for decent government, notwithstanding that the United States, as in Central Asia today, does business with dictators who have taken no steps toward freedom for their people.

Indeed, in Evian, the leading charge against the speech, which was generally well received, was hypocrisy – namely, that Mr. Bush didn’t really mean what he said or have any intention of acting on it.

I think, along with some others here, that that charge is premature. One need not attempt to solve all problems at once, so long as one is fully engaged in solving the biggest problems at hand. That means, quite simply, Iraq – and Afghanistan as well. That is the only path from where we stand now to vindication.