I have no privileged perspective on the wisdom or lack thereof in President Bush’s Wednesday night address on Iraq. Like most readers¯and, one would like to think, all who have at heart both America’s interests and the avoidance of greater misery in the Middle East¯I hope the change of policy that he announced will be vindicated in the months ahead. One can agree with his statement: "The challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time." Certainly, it is linked inextricably to the decisive ideological struggle of our time, which is the multi-faceted challenge posed by Islamic Jihadism.
And one can agree with this: "Honorable people have different views and they will voice their criticisms. It is fair to hold our views up to scrutiny. And all involved have a responsibility to explain how the path they propose would be more likely to succeed." For the record, I have no path to propose. That what has happened is an enormous disappointment resulting in a bloody mess is obvious to all, and not least to President Bush. Nobody should disagree with his statement, "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."
Among the many instant and interesting responses to the speech I have looked at, I recommend Reihan Salam over at The American Scene , Victor Davis Hanson at National Review Online , and John Podhoretz in the New York Post . A fascinating analysis, published in the Wall Street Journal a day before the speech (subscription only), is Edward Luttwak’s detailed walk-through of the various Sunni and Shia factions and sub-factions that are at war, and the complicated consequences in the realignment of states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and others. This is Realpolitik with a vengeance.
Luttwak concludes that Bush is achieving by accident a reconfiguration of the balance of power in the Middle East that cannier statesmen have long sought. I have no idea whether Luttwak is right, but his description of the many factors in play is both intimidating and instructive.
I confess to being haunted by the recent observation of Bernard Lewis that the retreat of the United States from Iraq will establish throughout the world the perception that "America is harmless as an enemy and treacherous as an ally." Such an outcome cannot be good for America and cannot be good for the world.
The New York Times editorial the next day held no surprises: "President Bush told Americans last night that failure in Iraq would be a disaster. The disaster is Mr. Bush’s war, and he has already failed . . . . Without a real plan to bring [the war] to a close, there is no point in talking about jobs programs and military offensives. There is nothing ahead but even greater disaster in Iraq."
The editors do not say that they fear the policy will fail. With an air of supreme confidence they predict, as they have been predicting all along, that the U.S. will fail in Iraq. The editors have a steep stake in the vindication of their predictions. The editors want the U.S. to fail. This is vile.
Those less captive to partisan passion know that this is not "Mr. Bush’s war" but America’s war. All the mistakes notwithstanding, it was initiated for justifiable ends. I believe we are morally obliged to pray that it will be concluded in a manner that will benefit the people of Iraq and the greater Middle East and will not bring discredit upon America and its necessary role in the world. I earnestly wish I could be more confident of how that prayer will be answered.
An old New Yorker cartoon has a dozen executives sitting around the boardroom table, on which sits a big box of soap on which is emblazoned "NEW!!!" The chairman is saying to one of the executives, "What do you mean what’s new about it? The ‘NEW!!!’ is new."
Within the next few weeks, there really will be something new. The First Things website is in the process of being entirely redesigned. We hope you will like it as much as we do.
We’ve been at this for a year and a half now, and the response to the website has been gratifying indeed. We make no secret of the fact that the website is in the service of First Things , the magazine, and we’ve been at that for almost sixteen years. One purpose of the website is to persuade people that they should be subscribing to the magazine, and I am glad to report that many have been so persuaded. (The new site will allow you to purchase on online-only subscription, too.)
If you were a subscriber, you would be receiving in the next few days the February issue, in which Jordan Hylden, a young evangelical, raises some hard questions in "A Letter to Tony Campolo" about Mr. Campolo’s book, A Letter to Young Evangelicals . In the same issue, Gilbert Meilaender has some questions for N.T. Wright, who has done magnificent work in biblical studies but has a lot to learn about political morality. Both poignant and informative is Ryan Anderson’s story about a college student trying to cope with same-sex desires. It’s called "Struggling Alone." And those are just the three opinion pieces in this issue.
"Stephen King’s American Apocalypse" is an essay by Ross Douthat revealing unexpected dimensions of our literary and popular culture. (You may remember Douthat’s remarkable essay in the August/September 2006 issue, "Theocracy! Theocracy! Theocracy!") Then there is Timothy George, that formidable evangelical theologian, on "Evangelicals and the Mother of God." (Mary is the current subject being taken up by Evangelicals and Catholics Together.) Among the most gracefully gifted of writers today is Alan Jacobs, and his "In Search of Eden" explores the ways in which people have tried to put Paradise on the map.
Discussions of new books in the February issue include subjects such as Jewish understandings of the world to come, a new translation of the Aeneid , science and definitions of truth, the excitements of chastity, and political philosopher Pierre Manent’s defense of the nation-state. Inevitably, and to the delight and consternation of many, there is my "The Public Square," with its invariably modest observations on sundry topics pertaining to religion, culture, and public life¯which is to say, pertaining to just about everything of real interest.