When my father returned from service as an Army doctor in Korea in 1953, he brought back slides of the photos he’d shot, showing a war-torn country of incredible poverty. We would have laughed if you had told us that Americans would one day buy Korean cars. But 50-some years later, South Korea has the 13th-largest economy in the world, and you see Hyundais and Kias everywhere in America. Looking at things in micro-timeframes is not always a reliable guide to the macro-timeframe future.
So it may turn out to be with Iraq. We have been looking at Iraq in micro-timeframes — or, for many who oppose the war, frozen in the timeframe of late 2006. A better picture of the micro-timeframe is that we have achieved considerable success this year.
"The trend toward better security is indisputable," writes The Associated Press. U.S. military and civilian deaths have declined sharply. Anbar province is pacified, Iraqis are streaming back to Baghdad, and al-Qaida in Iraq is on the run. Time’s Joe Klein, a critic of the administration, admits the gains and advises Democrats not to try to cut off funds. Conservative columnist Tony Blankley claims "a very real expectation that next year the world may see a genuine, old-fashioned victory in the Iraq war."
American media are presenting less reporting from Iraq, partly because some in the media believe that good news in Iraq is not news. Some Democratic congressional leaders still maintain that the surge strategy has made no difference, and they seek a vote on troop withdrawal. But Democratic presidential candidates, more closely attuned perhaps to changes in events and opinion, are talking less about withdrawing from Iraq and more about what we should do (or should not do) about Iran.
Let’s look, however, not just at the micro-timeframe but the macro-timeframe. Yes, violence could re-escalate, as Klein predicts. But within sight is a far more hopeful trajectory. In the long run of history, our involvement in Iraq is starting to look less like a descent into a hopeless quagmire and a more unstable Middle East.
Remember that in early 2005 the successful initial invasion and the specter of a possibly democratic Iraq prompted Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction and Syria to withdraw troops in the face of the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon. The increasing violence in Iraq in late 2005 and all of 2006 was accompanied by the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, the increasing menace of Iran, Syria’s continued bullying of Lebanon and other dire developments.
There was similar back-and-forth in Korea: communists nearly driving the United States off the peninsula, then the successful Inchon landing and push to the Yalu River boundary with China, then the Chinese counteroffensive that resulted in a stalemate roughly along the 38th parallel. Each of those developments suggested a very different future trajectory. The one that turned out to be lasting was the maintenance of a non-Communist South Korea that over several decades became first prosperous and then democratic.
That example gave impetus to similar developments in East Asia and even China, which adopted a system of authoritarian government and market economics reminiscent of 1970s South Korea. Harry Truman was regarded as a failed president, with job ratings below George W. Bush’s. But the long-term verdict on his Korea policy is much more positive.
An Iraq that is reasonably stable, fairly democratic, more prosperous and productive than the Middle Eastern standard: This seems to be at least one possible trajectory from the success of the surge. That would be a considerable achievement, with positive reverberations for decades to come.
In time, the back-and-forth between victory, then rout, then acceptable but incomplete success that we saw in Korea — the micro-timeframes that seemed so important at the time — was mostly forgotten. And the qualified but substantial progress achieved in the macro-timeframe, in Korea and in the dangerous region around it, dominated our view.
We have now some basis to hope that something similar happens in Iraq and the dangerous region around it. We are still far from the "broad, sunlit uplands" that Winston Churchill pointed to in the distance after disaster was narrowly averted at Dunkirk. But we seem to be getting closer.