Ralph Peters is a retired military officer and the author of 20 books, including Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace.
The Bush administration got many of the details painfully wrong in its design to change the Middle East, but it got the big issues right: Saddam Hussein was an intolerable tyrant; the oppressed do yearn for freedom; and the roots of Islamist terrorism lie in the region's comprehensive stagnation.
Change was essential. But change on a grand scale doesn't come without costs. A lurid 24/7 news cycle made the price we paid in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom seem exorbitant, yet, given the magnitude of the endeavor, we've gotten off lightly by any historical standard. The potential return on our strategic investment has begun to look enormous.
Contrary to the views of its supporters and detractors the Bush administration is neither saintly nor evil.
Inept decisions on the part of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his acolytes exacerbated the occupation's difficulties. In the wake of a spectacular battlefield victory, our soldiers often died needlessly and Iraqis suffered more severely at the hands of terrorists and insurgents than would have been the case had our government heeded expert advice instead of closing its eyes and touching wood.
Nonetheless, the administration's overarching vision, the dedication of our troops and the determination of the Iraqi people produced free elections that set a new standard for the Arab world-providing a catalyst for the reforms that have lately begun to spread across the region. Future historians won't complain of the twenty-two months between the fall of Baghdad and those inspiring, defiant elections. The interval will seem brief when viewed dispassionately.
What President Bush undertook was more difficult than he imagined-but the world can be grateful that he rejected traditional diplomacy and acted. Those critics who insisted that "war doesn’t solve anything," or that Arabs don't want democracy (a despicable, racist argument), or that dictators are entitled to the protections of sovereignty will be judged far more harshly by history than those who supported regime change in Iraq.
At their worst, the administration's opponents seemed to long for the Iraqi experiment to fail — just to spite the Bush administration. We need to put such hypocrisy behind us. We must have the individual and collective integrity to recognize that great, positive changes appear to be underway in the Middle East — triggered by America's engagement in Iraq.
Those who remain incapable of granting the current administration any credit should at least honor the 8 million Iraqis who defied terrorist death threats to vote in their first free elections. Surely, we can praise the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who put their own ferocious past behind them to topple a puppet government in Beirut. The region's valiant reformers no longer appear to be anomalies, but prophets.
There is genuine, if tenuous, hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Young Iranians want to be rid of their dictatorship of mullahs. Egypt's President Mubarak promises steps toward democracy. And even Saudi Arabia's ruling family — a grotesque mafia — has begun to experiment with low-level elections.
All of this is only a beginning, of course. The Middle East remains socially decayed, economically incompetent and politically brutalized. But what we have seen in the past two months is more than the most optimistic among us thought possible in so short a time.
Much could still go wrong. Ethnic and religious rivalries may yet poison Iraq's future. Autocrats will maneuver to retain power. Terrorism will linger. And if any single factor can impede progress across the entire Middle East, it's the endemic culture of corruption-a cancer that goes far deeper than the topical symptom of terrorism.
Nothing can be taken for granted. If the pessimists were wrong thus far, the optimists had best remain sober. Every breaking indicator suggests that the people of the Middle East are willing to sacrifice for change, but great dreams have been frustrated before and not all of the changes we’ll see will be pretty ones. Religious fanaticism still haunts Muslim civilization. We may hope that the region has begun to shake off its deadly malaise, but there will be plentiful disappointments along the way. Euphoria remains as ill-advised as unyielding pessimism.
Yet, hope now exists in a region long deemed hopeless. That much is undeniable. For the first time in history, the common people of the Middle East have an outside chance to build a humane future. Tyrants are falling, terror has failed, and democracy just might work where it long was scorned.
It was worth a war.