It was high time President Bush spoke to the nation of the war in Iraq. A year or so ago, it was our war, and we claimed it proudly. To be sure,
there was a minority that never bought into the expedition and genuinely
believed that it would come to grief. But most of us recognized that a
culture of terror had taken root in the Arab world. We struck, first at
Afghanistan and then at the Iraqi regime, out of a broader determination to
purge Arab radicalism.

No wonder President Bush, in the most intensely felt passage of Monday
night’s speech, returned to Sept. 11 and its terrors. “In the last 32
months, history has placed great demands on our country,” he said. “We did
not seek this war on terror. But this is the world as we find it.”
Instinctively, an embattled leader fell back on a time of relative national

But gone is the hubris. Let’s face it: Iraq is not going to be America’s
showcase in the Arab-Muslim world. The president’s insistence that he had
sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, “not to make them
American” is now – painfully – beside the point. The unspoken message of
the speech was that no great American project is being hatched in Iraq. If
some of the war’s planners had thought that Iraq would be an ideal base for
American primacy in the Persian Gulf, a beacon from which to spread
democracy and reason throughout the Arab world, that notion has clearly
been set aside.

We are strangers in Iraq, and we didn’t know the place. We had struggled
against radical Shiism in Iran and Lebanon in recent decades, but we
expected a fairly secular society in Iraq (I myself wrote in that vein at
the time). Yet it turned out that the radical faith – among the Sunnis as
well as the Shiites – rose to fill the void left by the collapse of the old

In the decade that preceded the Iraq expedition, we had had our fill with
the Arab anger in the streets of Ramallah and Cairo and Amman. We had
wearied of the willful anti-Americanism. Now we find that anger, at even
greater intensity, in the streets of Falluja. Iraqis had been muzzled for
more than three decades. Suddenly they found themselves, dangerously and
radically, free. Meanwhile, behind concrete walls and concertina wire,
American soldiers and administrators hunkered down in an increasingly
hostile land..


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