How to Make the Victory Stick

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The axis of evil appeared ready to sue for peace last week. Saddam was still having "Is it live or is it Memorex?" moments, but his government was gone from Iraq. North Korea suddenly agreed to the American demand for multilateral talks about ending its nuclear-weapons program (even though Pyongyang promptly announced the program was proceeding). Even proud Iran was making conciliatory noises. The newspapers in Tehran were hot with argument over a proposed public referendum on whether to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Great Satan. The idea was floated by former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the cleverest politician in the country, one who has positioned himself between the reformers and the mullahs, with links to both camps.

These were whiffs of change rather than full-blown breakthroughs, and there were those who discounted their import. The North Koreans had succumbed, it was said, only because of pressure from China and some folding by the U.S. on who should be at the table. Skeptics insisted that Rafsanjani was just playing local politics; he was hoping to reinvigorate his flagging, centrist political party for next year's parliamentary elections by appealing to Iran's pro-American, pro-reform majority. But make no mistake: none of this would be happening were it not for George W. Bush. He invented the axis of evil. He decided to make war on Iraq. He has plainly scared the bejeezus out of North Korea, Iran, Syria — and, oh yes, out of the Democrats too, who seem to be on the precipice of one of their periodic, nausea-inducing journeys into self-loathing and anomie.

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It's not easy to defeat an incumbent President under the best of circumstances, and the Democrats have cause to worry. This particular model Bush is a deft politician with big ideas and with the guts to take risks that can yield great victories. He is also one brazen dude: he traveled last week to Missouri and came very close to using the V word — victory — even though most of Saddam Hussein's inner circle had effectively disappeared and even though no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found and even though U.S.-controlled Iraq remained a chaotic mess (and even though Afghanistan — you remember Afghanistan — seemed to be slipping back toward chaos). Americans, tired of the TV show, seemed ready to accept a victory that hadn't quite manifested itself yet.

So Bush is, for the moment, triumphant. His triumphs may turn out to be historic, but they will require a great deal of work. The openings to North Korea and Iran will require subtle, patient diplomacy, which has not been this Administration's strength. The reconstruction of Iraq will require great skill and sensitivity as well, and events on the ground do not bode well. Many Iraqis moved with unseemly haste from dancing in the streets to stealing everything that wasn't tied down. Worse, their gratitude — which seemed equal parts real and sham — dissolved into griping within days. One wonders how they will receive their newly designated American saviors, Bechtel and a division of Halliburton.

The Iraqis have proved resistant to "reconstruction" efforts in the past. Three years after the British tried to tame Mesopotamia, the Times of London complained about the futility of the project and — Karl Rove, take note — about its impact on domestic British politics: "While [the government] has spent nearly 150,000,000 since the Armistice upon semi-nomads in Mesopotamia [it] can find only 200,000 a year for the regeneration of our slums, and have had to forbid all expenditure under the Education Act of 1918." (The government was defeated by Labor in 1922.)

This is not to say that Bush will fail in Iraq. It is to say that success will demand painstaking effort. The President has excelled at grand themes, but he seems to believe that the detail work necessary to give themes substance can be delegated or finessed. His domestic agenda is a joke. There is no program — except for the never-ending quest for unwarranted (and unwanted, if the polls are right) tax cuts and a quietly corrosive effort to undermine existing government rules and regulations. Bush faces rebellion by members of his own party in Congress who are dismayed by the superficial nature of his Administration. "When was the last time the White House took an active leadership position on anything?" a Senate Republican asked last week, and then answered the question. "The education bill, two years ago. We get general 'principles' but no detailed proposals, no guidance, no leadership."

This, then, is a hinge moment in the history of Bush II. There has been lots of drama. Saddam and the Taliban have been routed. A tax cut has passed, another is proposed. But real progress, at home and abroad, requires real governance. Two questions will have to be answered in the 18 months before Election Day 2004: Is this Administration going to concern itself only with grand gestures? And if those gestures are not backed by substance, will the American people notice or care?