Georgie Anne Geyer

The Evil Within the Innocence

WASHINGTON -- There was a brief period of wishful thinking after the Baker/Hamilton Commission report was issued last week that W.'s "Axis of Evil" might have died along with any real hope of winning in Iraq -- but no.

Only days afterward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not only confirmed that we would NOT speak to either Iran, an axis member, or Syria, a serious runner-up, but also said she sees the Middle East as being "rearranged" in ways that provide the United States with a "new strategic context" and a "clarifying moment."

One could agree with the clarifying moment part, but only in the realm of sarcasm.

Last week, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker warned that we face a "broken army." Other generals warned we would need to enlarge our entire military if we embraced the "surge" idea -- pouring troops into Baghdad to make one last high-noon stand -- that the president obviously is moving toward. The Saudis warned the U.S. that if their Sunni brethren in Iraq were being decimated, they would enter the war, assuredly opening an all-Arab, Sunni-Shia regional war. In American polls, 52 percent said they disapproved of the way Bush is handling Iraq; and in surveys of formerly friendly countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon), strong majorities expressed unfavorable opinions of the United States.

But our critics' clarity -- that this war was a misbegotten child of hubris, arrogance and innocence from the start, and that now our foreign policy must be totally reconstructed -- is not the administration's clarity.

The administration "experts" still talk blithely about attacking the militias, such as the culturally and religiously rooted 60,000 dedicated men in Moqtada al Sadr's Shia militia, with our thrown-together "Iraqi army." Members of the administration have two more years, remember, and they are brilliantly capable of getting us in still deeper, even as they admit that they have no idea who most of the insurgents are.

They still believe we are fighting the pure, unadulterated, shameless face of evil in Iraq. But in truth, as tragic events play out there, we see another face of evil in Iraq -- not the face of the repression or sadism of a Saddam or a Khomeini, but the face of a well-meaning innocence about the world that unintentionally leaves behind great and abiding evil.

This naivete has gnawed at the spine of our policy in Iraq; it was our sin in Vietnam and Somalia and Lebanon; and it lies deep in our history as a nation, ever at war with American pragmatism and realism.

You can, of course, find the dangers of American innocence, which essentially sees the world as a mirror-image of America, in great literature. One need only think of Henry James' classic "Daisy Miller" in 1877; one finds it most recently in the magnificent film of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American": the well-intentioned American who tears Saigon apart with his naive ambitions.

What our innocence did in Iraq, of course, was to simply destroy the state. Iraq may not have been much, but it was a workable state, which is rather remarkable in today's world. Putting foreign troops, pitifully unknowledgeable about the culture, into that society is like putting poison into a human body and systematically destroying its organs, muscles and blood vessels.

The presence of so many hopeless failed states across the globe, almost all of them the result of the same form of colonial destructiveness, should have shown us how hard, if not impossible, it is to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

And our final self-indulgent message to the Iraqis now: YOU put it together again! Is it any wonder they hate us?

But this utopian self-indulgence is only part of American history.

We also draw on the great Eisenhowers and Marshalls and MacArthurs (MacArthur actually had cultural anthropologists in the Defense Department school him in the Japanese character). We take pride in FDR saving the world during the Great Depression, the Marshall Plan, JFK's "Alliance for Progress" and George H.W. Bush's discrete policy of quietly letting Eastern Europe go free. These are the Americans who understand that our country is unique. It evolved organically, over 500 years of English law and practice, and great care must be taken in asserting that its lessons can be applied, willy-nilly, to other cultures -- particularly militarily.

Meanwhile, what are we gaining by continuing this "Axis of Evil" nonsense and not speaking to Iran? Well, last Friday, elections in Iran represented a substantial setback for the radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- indeed, the pragmatic former leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani came in first in important spots, potentially opening a door from their side that we still keep tightly closed from ours. The world constantly changes -- that is why you don't set foreign policy in immovable terms.

And so, these next two years will be crucial. If we insist upon doing more of what we are so unsuccessfully doing, we face a disgraceful retreat from Iraq and probably from the entire Middle East, and even an end to the Pax Americana that has successfully ruled and regulated the world since World War II.

If that happens, ironically, it will be because of that layer of the American soul that, eschewing history, human nature, common sense, the public good and natural experience, turns out to be, in its innocence, truly another form of evil.

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