WASHINGTON - God bless the Democratic Party's primary voters in Iowa. They may have rescued our chances of succeeding in Iraq and even winning the war of ideas within the Arab-Muslim world. Go Hawkeyes!
How so? Well, it seems to me that Iowa Democrats, in opting for Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, signaled (among other things) that they want a presidential candidate who is serious about fighting the war against the Islamist totalitarianism threatening open societies.
"It was a good night for the [Tony] Blair Democrats in Iowa," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
By "Blair Democrats," Mr. Marshall was referring to those Democrats who voted for the Iraq war, and conveyed "a toughness and resolve to face down America's enemies," but who believe the Bush team has mismanaged the project. This is so important because there has been no credible opposition to the Bush foreign policy since the Iraq war. Democrats have been intimidated either by Mr. Bush or by Dr. Dean.
Mr. Bush's lightning victory in Iraq intimidated those who favored the war but had reservations about the Bush approach. And then, when things started to go sour in Iraq, Dr. Dean's outspoken opposition to the war - and the eager reception it received from some Democratic activists - got those Democrats who did vote for the war tied into pretzels, trying to simultaneously justify their war vote and distance themselves from it.
Without a serious Democratic critique of the war - and I define "serious" as one that connects with the gut middle-American feeling that the Islamist threat had to be confronted, but one that lays out a smarter approach than the Bush team's - Mr. Bush has gotten away with being sloppy and unprepared for postwar Iraq.
My hope is that Iowa will embolden the Blair Democrats to shuck off their intimidation, by Mr. Bush and Dr. Dean, and press their case. It is the only way to build a national consensus for what's going to be a long Cold War-like struggle to strengthen the forces of moderation and weaken the forces of violent intolerance within the Arab-Muslim world - which is what the real war on terrorism is about. To be successful, Democrats will need a candidate who understands three things (which Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark do):
First, this notion, put forward by Dr. Dean and Al Gore, that the war in Iraq has diverted us from the real war on "terrorists" is just wrong. There is no war on "terrorism" that does not address the misgovernance and pervasive sense of humiliation in the Muslim world. Sure, al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein pose different threats, Mr. Marshall notes, "but they emerge from the same pathology of widespread repression, economic stagnation and fear of cultural decline." Building a decent Iraq is very much part of the war on terrorism.
Second, sometimes smashing someone in the face is necessary to signal others that they will be held accountable for the intolerance they incubate. Removing the Taliban and Mr. Hussein sent that message to every government in the area.
Third, the Iraq war may have created more hatred of the United States, but it has also set off a hugely important dialogue among Arabs and Muslims about the necessity of reform.
A serious Democratic candidate, I hope, will force the Bush team to accept the fact that it has failed to create a stable political transition in Iraq and must urgently change course in two ways: (1) It can't succeed in Iraq without forging a rapprochement with Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, they will ensure that we fail. If Iraq works, that will create its own reform pressures around the region. (2) The Bush team has to scrap the complicated caucus system it has devised for choosing an interim Iraqi government. It won't work. The Shiites' demand, though, for immediate elections also won't work.
The United States should beg the United Nations to find an Afghan-style solution for Iraq: Expand the Governing Council from 25 to 75 people, bring in all strands and make it the interim government - in return for the United States' dropping its approach and the Shiites' dropping theirs. It is the only way out of this impasse - the only way to create a decent Iraq that can help us win the war of ideas in the region.
Democrats haven't been able to hold the Bush team accountable because their party couldn't offer a credible alternative. Well, here's hoping that the credible Democratic opposition was reborn, re-energized and "de-intimidated" by the people of Iowa last week. Lord knows we need it.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.