A few weeks ago, in Britain's Prospect magazine, the paper's foreign editor, Bartle Bull, published a bold essay saying that the high tide of violence in Iraq was essentially behind us and that the ebb had disclosed some interesting things. First, the Iraqi people as a whole had looked into the abyss of civil war and had drawn back from the brink. Second, the majority of Sunni Arabs had realized that their involvement with al-Qaida forces was not a patriotic "insurgency" but was instead a horrific mistake and had exposed their society to the most sadistic and degraded element in the entire Muslim world. Third, the Shiite militias had also come to appreciate that they had overplayed their hand. There remained, according to Bull, an appalling level of criminal and antisocial violence, but essentially Iraq was agreed on a rough new dispensation whereby ethnic and social compromise would determine events and where subversive outside interference would not be welcomed.
I read the article and admired its nerve, but I didn't really choose to believe it. It didn't appear to me that things had yet bottomed out, and it didn't seem believable that the essential sectarianism of the Maliki regime, illustrated so graphically by its crude execution of Saddam Hussein, could be explained away. Worst of all, the exodus of so many secular or qualified or educated Iraqis (perhaps as many as 2.5 million exiles living in Syria or Jordan or farther away) seemed to threaten a long period of social and cultural decline, a sort of Road Warrior situation in which only the parties of God would benefit.
Keeping all this in mind, it nonetheless does begin to look as if Iraqis may in fact have started to recover command over their own destiny, and also as if America may have helped them to do so. The surge is only a part of this story. Quite obviously, if the Sunnis of Anbar Province had not of their own volition turned on the hideous forces of al-Qaida, then no amount of extra troops could have made the difference. But some combination of the two things appears to have altered the chemistry, and not just in that province, and all the reporters and soldiers I can get hold of (who include some direly skeptical people in both categories) seem agreed on one thing: The forces of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi stink in the nostrils of the Arab world, and have been—here I borrow some words of Thomas Paine—"in point of generalship … outwitted, and in point of fortitude outdone." Bin Ladenism in Iraq has been dealt a stinging defeat. Surely this is something to celebrate.
For the rest, one has to piece together an anecdote here and a bit of patchwork there. Last weekend, the London Sunday Times had this to say under the byline of Hala Jaber:
Most of Baghdad's street lamps went on last week for the first time in years. It was a small improvement in the quality of life, but in the twinkling light the Iraqi capital looked a little less menacing and a lot more familiar. Ahmed Chalabi, the former darling of American neoconservatives who lobbied hard for the overthrow of Saddam and later became deputy prime minister, toured the city with quiet satisfaction. … Earlier this month Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, put Chalabi in charge of restoring essential services to the capital.
Aha, you say, the Murdoch press will never give up on its favorite Iraqi stooge. All right, try this from the Los Angeles Times of Nov. 13:
The first stop on [Chalabi's] itinerary this day is the compound of Sheik Nadeem Hatim Sultan, leader of the Tamimi tribe in the Taji region north of the capital. Until two months ago, the area was a hot spot for ethnic violence and an outpost for the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S.-led troops routed insurgents under the new security push, and tribal sheiks fought to regain control of their community. Sectarian fires have cooled now and residents are eager to rebuild the area's economy, fueled by lush farmland and about 15 textile factories, and to restore its public services. Chalabi is received like royalty.
To have savaged and discredited al-Qaida in an open fight and to have taken down a fascist Baath Party, which betrayed its pseudosecularism by forging an alliance with al-Qaida, is to have scored an impressive victory on any terms. However, the price of this achievement was often the indulgence of some excessive conduct on the part of the Shiite parties and militias. The next stage must be the reining-in of the Sadrists and the discouragement of Iranian support for such groups. Again, one hardly dares to hope, but there are some promising signs. The Maliki government is not using undue haste or sectarian demagogy in the case of Sultan Hashim Ahmed al-Tai, Saddam Hussein's former defense minister, sentenced to death but not yet executed. Many Sunni Kurds and Arabs, either opposed to the death penalty on principle or opposed in this case, seem for now to have prevailed. And "the cabinet," according to the Nov. 18 New York Times, "has sent legislation to the Parliament softening the de-Baathification law that had prevented former Baathists' working in government jobs." I wonder how many people, reading that ordinary sentence about "the cabinet" and "the Parliament," as reported also in independent Iraqi media, have any idea what it means when compared with the insane proceedings of the totalitarian abattoir state that was Iraq until 2003.
As I began by saying, I am not at all certain that any of this apparently good news is really genuine or will be really lasting. However, I am quite sure both that it could be true and that it would be wonderful if it were to be true. What worries me about the reaction of liberals and Democrats is not the skepticism, which is pardonable, but the dank and sinister impression they give that the worse the tidings, the better they would be pleased. The latter mentality isn't pardonable and ought not to be pardoned, either.