There is a tenacity, a resolve, a certain moral seriousness about Nouri Al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, that many politicians here must find unsettling. His determination was on full display Wednesday, when he addressed Congress to discuss the future of Iraq. In a 30-minute speech interrupted 27 times by applause, Al-Maliki poignantly described the existential terrorist threat facing his country.
“Thousands of lives were tragically lost on September 11th when these imposters of Islam reared their ugly head. Thousands more continue to die in Iraq today at the hands of the same terrorists who show complete disregard for human life,” he said. “Should democracy be allowed to fail in Iraq and terror permitted to triumph, then the war on terror will never be won elsewhere.”
This is, more or less, the charge made by the Bush administration — a charge flatly rejected by most of the Democratic leadership and their liberal allies. In the fight for Iraq, Al-Maliki sees the Battle of the Bulge. Detractors see only the quagmire of Vietnam.
If the White House has sometimes appeared naive about the “terrible” violence in Baghdad (as Bush called it earlier this week) and the great challenges remaining, its critics have an opposite problem: an unflappable fatalism. For them, Iraq remains a horrid waste of American lives and resources. Its imminent collapse signals the failure of the entire democracy project in the Middle East. Democratic leaders such as Howard Dean call for an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal, while liberal religious journals such as The Christian Century demand “a season of repentance” for American misdeeds.
We’ve seen this mood before. It is reminiscent of the cynicism of progressives in the 1930s, who viewed the struggle against Nazi Germany in the black light of the First World War. Isolationists such as Joseph Kennedy did everything possible to delay American entry into the European conflict. Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of The Christian Century, belittled the Allied effort as “a war for imperialism” (not much has changed at the magazine, it seems). Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the best-known preachers in America, claimed that even a war against fascism would be “utterly and irredeemably unchristian.”
There were wiser voices making themselves heard — Reinhold Niebuhr, Lewis Mumford, Lynn Harold Hough and others — that are worth recalling in the present moment. Mumford, a humanist philosopher who joined Niebuhr’s band of “Christian realists,” viewed his own generation as “smug and cynical” in their contempt for any effort to defend democracy against Nazi terror. The reason, he argued, was their fixation on the horrific costs of WWI and the imperfect peace it achieved. “In an orgy of debunking,” Mumford wrote in early 1941, “my generation defamed the acts and nullified the intentions of better people than themselves.” As a result, they were nearly incapable of judging honestly the Nazi threat to civilization — and what it might require to defeat it.
Al-Maliki’s speech to Congress stands as a reproach to the debunkers of our own day. He was sober, yet not cynical, about America’s and the world’s failure to support Iraq’s stirrings toward freedom, particularly after the first Gulf War. “In 1991, when Iraqis tried to capitalize on the regime’s momentary weakness and rose up, we were alone again,” he said. He might have mentioned that thousands of Iraqis perished at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Yet he immediately added that Iraqis would never forget the continued support of the American people. A fatalist wouldn’t put much stock in the U.S. commitment to Iraq, as Al-Maliki, facing daily risks for doing so, clearly does. Bush’s leadership on this point, backed up by the exceptional effort of the U.S.-led coalition, explains much of this confidence.
The heart of Al-Maliki’s message, though, was that Iraq is center stage in the fight against global terrorism. Here is a confrontation, he warned, that demands the engagement of “every liberal democracy that values freedom.” It is this message — delivered by a man trying to govern his nation at ground zero of the struggle — which offends liberal leaders and intellectuals here and in Europe. From the U.N. Secretariat to the National Council of Churches, the American campaign in Iraq has been derided as an “illegal” and “immoral” misadventure. It is scorned as an act of imperial hubris, a war on Islam, a ploy for cheap oil. Al-Maliki knows all this, yet he pushed the argument nonetheless. “Do not think that this is an Iraqi problem. This terrorist front is a threat to every free country in the world and their citizens,” he said. “What is at stake is nothing less than our freedom and liberty. Iraq is the battle that will win the war.”
A man who once carried a death sentence on his head and lived in exile for over 20 years, Al-Maliki is no utopian. He knows all about the sectarian divisions in his country, the threat of rogue militias, the security problems in Baghdad, the fears that drain away hope. “The journey has been perilous,” he told Congress, “and the future is not guaranteed.” Yet he remains resolved: “I will not allow terrorists to dictate to us our future.”
The cynics in his audience — the Ted Kennedy wing of the Democratic party — are not the ones to lead America into this future. They remain trapped in the past, it seems, an emotional quagmire of their own making.