Late last week on one of the cable news programs I saw an obviously well educated Jordanian woman being interviewed for her response to the sudden and ignominious collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein. She expressed the common shock and humiliation that many Arabs clearly felt at the failure of the Republican Guard to fight to the last man against the Americans and the refusal of Baghdad to offer itself as a second Stalingrad. But she expressed something else as well-a remark that the interviewer did not choose to follow up on, though I wish very much he had.
She said that the sudden collapse could mean only one thing-namely, that we did not yet know what really happened.
But of course we do know what really happened. A genuine army had vanquished a phantom army. And surely the woman being interviewed must have known this, too. Somewhere, at some level of consciousness, she must be aware that what had happened could not possibly have been otherwise, and that the Arab world had been played for suckers by both the Iraqi Minister of Information and by the various Arab media propagandists. They had lied, and these lies had been eagerly, willingly believed.
And yet what the woman's final remark suggested was not that she had enough of such lies, but rather that she was anxious to hear more of them. Anxious, at the very least, to hear a lie that would explain how all the other lies hadn't been lies at all.
It is one of the most difficult things for us to understand about those who are in the grips of a collective fantasy-how even the most powerful, the most irrefutable evidence will be ignored and suppressed in order to keep the fantasy intact.
And this is the greatest danger confronting the American mission to bring sanity to the Arab world-it may not want it.
This is why the next couple of days and weeks will be so critical for us and for the world.
If the collective Arab mind decides that the fall of Baghdad came about because a corrupt dictator had lost the loyalty of the people whom he had brutalized for thirty years, then sanity may begin to emerge. But if, on the other hand, this same collective mind begins to look for another consoling myth, it is sure to find one readily available. And if you doubt this, simply recall the Arab theories of 9/11.
The Bush administration has done all that it could humanly do in order to topple Saddam Hussein in the collective imagination of the Arab mind. It has defeated him, and-even more astonishingly-it has discredited him; and it will continue to discredit him during the following weeks and months as more and more evidence of his brutality and cupidity are broadcast to the world. But the question must be squarely faced, Will this be enough?
The answer is, No, it will not be enough. For what feeds the tendency to fantasy is the fact of failure. And if the Second Iraqi war ends merely in yet another instance of Arab failure, then there is a grave fear that such failure will in fact breed even more fantasy.
And this is precisely why the Bush administration must be permitted to follow through on the second part of its program-namely, the reconstruction of Iraq. For the administration understands perfectly well that the only cure for the Arab mind's penchant for fantasy is to provide it with a real and genuine achievement-and what greater achievement could there be then an Iraq that was free and stable and prosperous?
It is a bold vision-and there are times when my own deep historical pessimism tells me that it is even a utopian vision. We have seen that the people of Iraq hated the tyranny under which they lived-but the fact that men do not wish to live as slaves is, tragically, no proof that they are capable of living as free men.
And yet this bold vision is one that the Bush administration must be given a chance to realize, and for two reasons.
First, because the Bush administration has earned it. It has proven itself right time after time. It has discomfited its critics and it has repeatedly astonished even its pessimistically inclined well-wishers, such as myself. It went into the war extravagantly claiming that the people of Iraq would greet us as liberators, and-by God-they did.
Second, because we have no other choice right now. The alternative to the optimism of George Bush is either the defeat of Western civilization or else a protracted apocalyptic struggle between Us and Them that will divide and torment the world for generations to come.
We all have a moral duty not to throw obstacles in the path of the United States as it proceeds with its great experiment in trying to reconstruct Iraq. Whatever our political goals may be-whether we love our country, or wish to see the people of Iraq flourish, or desire a more peaceful and harmonious world-it makes no difference. We are all in the same boat. If the administration succeeds, all of these various goals will be realized. And if it fails, none of them will be.
The United States is now faced with one of the great challenges that we have ever undertaken. Those who are not with us are not against us-they are against the people of Iraq, and the welfare of the human race.