The Washington Times

Because of Iraq, 2004 has been a very edgy year. The absence of bad news is excellent news, minimal bad news on any given day is good news, and as for good news, there isn’t enough to take the edge off for long. At least the nature of the challenge has clarified itself over the past couple months: on one side, Abu Musad Zarqawi’s world of barbarity, mayhem and beheadings; on the other, the United States, its allies, the new Iraqi government and what would seem to be the vast majority of Iraqis themselves.

The test is whether the latter can overcome the sheer ruthlessness of the former. The Abu Ghraib-prisoner-abuse scandal was a blot on the U.S. military and perhaps indirectly connected to questionable judgments on the part of senior civilian leaders. But what a wonderful part of the world it is that we live in, where we have scandal to preoccupy our minds rather than mayhem.

In this respect, the NATO summit now under way in Istanbul ought to serve as a timely reminder of a road not taken – precisely the road of turmoil and misery whose most extreme destination is the world of Mr. Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden. What we have on display in Istanbul is an alliance of 26 free and democratic nations that live in a state of permanent peace with each other and that [even in the difficult case of Iraq] find ways to work together on security matters of mutual concern.

Moreover, knocking on the door where the 19 meet are a number of other countries hoping they too will soon be eligible for admission and committed to undertaking the reforms and attaining the level of democratic political maturity that will allow them full access to Western institutions.

All of this seems perfectly ordinary in 2004. But it isn’t. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union didn’t have to result in the rapid integration of Central and Eastern European nations with the West. The region could have taken an entirely different course. The two main reasons it didn’t were the determination of many people in these countries to secure for themselves the freedom enjoyed by their Western neighbors – and every bit as important, the willingness of their Western neighbors to welcome them.

For many of these countries, the immediate aftermath of the Cold War brought vast instability and uncertainty – and sometimes worse. I think the paradigmatic figure is Slobodan Milosevic, who saw in the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia an opportunity for the aggrandizement of Serbian nationalist aspirations by force, with horrendous results. Fortunately, he is a paradigm not for what aspiring Central and Eastern European political figures embraced as a model for the pursuit of their nations’ interests but for what they rejected: violence, repression, ethnic cleansing, terror.

Why did they reject this course? The answer is that the political leaders of these countries believed they could best improve their people’s prospects by aligning themselves with the West and adopting the model of democratic, market-based reform that had worked such wonders for prosperity there. But already the question is oversimplified: Of course there were committed Western-oriented liberals [in the classical sense] in these newly free countries. The real question is how they overcame other characters likewise present who would have been willing to take the Milosevic path – to the extent that in most all cases, the latter have been so thoroughly marginalized that they have all but disappeared from the political scene.

Well, the liberals were in many cases tough and smart, and, in not a few instances, genuinely heroic in confronting reactionary forces. But the story does not end there. They also knew, or at least hoped, that when they reached out to the West, the West would be prepared to extend a hand to them.

Some in the West counseled that the best course would be to do no such thing – that NATO was finished now that the Soviet threat was gone; that reaching out to the former Warsaw Pact nations, let alone former Soviet republics themselves, would only antagonize Russia; that turning eastward would wreck the prospects for European integration; that narrow considerations of national interest dictated a posture of non-engagement, leaving these nations to fend for themselves rather than indulging in sentimental talk about shared values.

Fortunately, this counsel did not prevail, and the West did extend a hand, offering encouragement, advice and assistance that empowered the reformers with a vision of inclusion and security. As for the naysayers in the West, most seem perfectly happy to think things turned out as well as they did spontaneously. In fact, this peace was by no means a given but a matter of hard, and in some cases courageous, work.

Which takes us back to Iraq. It seems to me that you can either congratulate yourself for having predicted adversity and walk away, or you can throw in your lot to help the people suffering it. The choice, on the evidence, makes a difference.