Success in the Middle East? Try Telling Howard Dean

George Bush’s anti-terrorist policy is such a smashing, crashing, slobbering, falling-down failure that … that … Afghan women are about to gain equal rights with men. And non-Islamic peoples in Afghanistan — Christians included — are gaining the right to public worship.

Afghanistan’s just-concluded national assembly has decided as much. Oddly, it decided so around the same time Osama bin Laden supposedly re-emerged to champion, in yet another Al Jazeera tape, the overthrow of the “crusaders.” The juxtaposition of events could not have been sweeter. The voice of the past — bin Laden’s — squeaks in protest against the future he himself made inevitable through the Sept. 11 attacks. The country that welcomed and harbored Al Qaeda is giving equal rights — and a guaranteed 25 percent of assembly seats — to women. Think of it! Arabic women making law alongside the menfolk! Why, it’s enough to make an embittered, gray-bearded screwball go out and machine-gun his camel.

According to our ambassador in Kabul, Afghanistan’s new constitution is “one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.” Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, but you have to start somewhere. The “somewhere” to which American resolution and military power have delivered Afghanistan is a place no one — least of all the Afghans — could have envisioned on Sept. 10, 2001.

That Afghanistan — its very name reeking of the remote and exotic — stands ready to model democracy for the rest of us is, well, a little improbable.

That’s a smaller problem than one might think. The imperative here is that Afghanistan, not the U.S. Congress, should model democracy, or something resembling it, for the Islamic world. Wouldn’t that be something? Afghan success, or even just partial success, with representative institutions and embedded rights might remind Arabs that life under a succession of squalid dictatorships is not kismet. The Iraqis, who had a civilized constitution before Saddam Hussein destroyed it, would seem first in line for inspiration of this sort. Afghanistan’s success at uniting, or anyway calming, wild and dissident factions suggests that post-Saddamite Iraq, with a little will and persuasion, could achieve something similar.

But Bush’s anti-terrorist policy is a failure! The president’s foes regularly say so. Howard Dean doesn’t feel one bit safer with Saddam behind bars, he reassured fellow Democrats out in Johnston, Iowa, the other night.

One has to wonder how Dean connects the dots in his head. Or whether he actually tries.

What Dean wants, he wants now, this very minute, and if that thing is ironclad guarantees of safety, and if President Bush doesn’t deliver said guarantees, waaaaah! Dean seems to fancy Rome as having been built in a single day. Maybe he had an ancestor — Quintus Deanus — in charge of construction.

The slow, steady progress exemplified by the convening of bitterly opposed factions; the pursuit of reconciliation and compromise; the walkouts and the walk-back-ins; the stuff that went on in Afghanistan, for instance — ahem; the governor of Vermont is Not Impressed. Won’t do! Not enough! Iraq, you have to infer from the governor of Vermont’s searching critiques, is a write-off so long as the United States tries to do it all alone.

The real pity is that, concerning Iraq, what the United States needs isn’t cheerleading or poor-mouthing either one. It’s realism and perspective. It’s consolidation. Nothing like what we have been doing has ever been done before. We clomp through unknown territory. Even Republicans aren’t sure how much more liberating they want to do for a while.

Hyped Up Howard’s refusal to admit much, or any, good in Bush’s Iraq policy destroys nuance and pushes Americans apart rather than inviting them to serious conversation about national ends. You wonder sometimes whether democracy — the institution Afghanistan is buying into — is all it’s cracked up to be. Didn’t democracy produce Howard Dean? It did. It also affords the chance to do something about him.