Outsiders wonder if the U.N. Security Council will endorse Washington's goal of toppling Saddam Hussein. But policy insiders assume an American war and an American victory, followed by Iraq's rehabilitation. For insiders, the main issue is the extent of

Outsiders wonder if the U.N. Security Council will endorse Washington's goal of toppling Saddam Hussein. But policy insiders assume an American war and an American victory, followed by Iraq's rehabilitation.

For insiders, the main issue is the extent of U.S. ambition in the Arabic-speaking countries after that's all done. This foreshadows the debate likely to dominate foreign-policy circles for decades: What should be America's role in the world?

Let's eavesdrop.

In the ambitious corner stands Middle East specialist Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese immigrant and professor at Johns Hopkins University. Writing in the liberal-leaning Foreign Affairs, he comments scathingly about the reigning political culture in the Arab countries ("the belligerence and self-pity in Arab life, its retreat from modernist culture and its embrace of conspiracy theories"). He sees in the vigorous exercise of American power the best chance for improvement: "No great apologies ought to be made for America's 'unilateralism.' The region can live with and use that unilateralism."

Ajami wants American will and prestige to tip the scales "in favor of modernity and change" and calls on Washington to aim high. "Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons, the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world."

Only a successful U.S. military campaign in Iraq will embolden those Arabs who seek "deliverance from retrogression and political decay," so he hopes the war will be fought "with the promise that the United States is now on the side of reform."

Over in the cautious corner stands strategist Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and now professor at Boston University whose article, evocatively titled "Don't Be Greedy!" appeared in the conservative National Review. Bacevich admonishes the Bush administration to confine its attention to Iraq itself and not make grand plans to bring democracy to the Arabs.

He dismisses these as "utterly preposterous" on four grounds:

  • "Arabs have little affinity for democracy" due to historical, cultural and religious factors.
  • Arabs understand that freedom implies disposable marriages, sexual license and abortion on demand as much as it does self-government and the rule of law - and they decline the package.
  • Efforts to inculcate democratic values will find few allies from within Arab societies, where "advocates for liberal values constitute at best a small minority."
  • Advocates for an ambitious program point to Germany and Japan as models, forgetting the "protracted, ugly and unpopular" U.S. failures in the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and South Vietnam. The Arab countries will more likely fit the latter pattern than the former.

Instead of trying to bring the Arabs into ideological sympathy with the United States, Bacevich argues, the goal should be to improve their governments' behavior. "Concepts like parliaments or women's rights may strike Saudi princes as alien. On the other hand, they have no difficulty grasping the significance of a B-2 bomber or a carrier battle group."

More broadly, Bacevich sees this approach as a proper "modesty and self-restraint" in U.S. foreign policy.

Both Bacevich and Ajami make compelling arguments - and their articles should be read in full - but this analyst sides with Ajami. Addressing Bacevich's four points:

  • Japan had about as much "affinity for democracy" in 1945 as the Arabs do today, yet democracy took hold there.
  • There is no indication that an open political system inexorably leads to higher divorce rates and the other social changes - again, look at Japan.
  • A famous American victory in Iraq and the successful rehabilitation of that country will bring liberals out of the woodwork and generally move the region toward democracy. (Saudi leaders are already leaking their plans to establish electing assemblies, something totally unprecedented in their kingdom.)
  • The United States cannot pass up a unique chance to remake the world's most politically fevered region. Sure, the effort might fail, but not even to try would be a missed opportunity.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last week said that American success in Iraq "could fundamentally reshape [the Middle East] in a powerful, positive way," suggesting that even the Bush team's most cautious member is rightly coming around to the ambitious point of view.