June 2, 2004 | Wall Street Journal

Saddam Is From Mars. Is Kerry From Venus?

Next Tuesday, for the first time in 122 years, Venus will pass across the face of the sun–something no one now living has ever witnessed. In these troubled times, it strikes me as some comfort that above the fray, the planets at their own pace keep their appointments with the stars. It is as at least a reminder to put down our TV remotes, look up from our keyboards (though you may want to catch the Venus Webcast) and marvel for a moment that in this universe there are still some forces that move to a tempo slower than the frantic beat of daily news.

Though in drawing any connections right now involving world politics–even in alluding to something as aloof as the track of Venus–there is the risk that U.S. foreign policy will somehow be weighed and found wanting. Had President Bush planned better on Iraq; had the United Nations had time to emit a few resolutions and a relief plan for the entire solar system, along with maybe another 17 resolutions on Saddam and another $100 billion or so in Oil for Food contracts; had Ahmed Chalabi and his allegations of WMD in Iraq never become a source either for the Bush administration or the New York Times; had the Pentagon zeroed in on Eve just before she bit the apple and pried it humanely from her hands, then surely Venus would already have accomplished its transit, bigger, better, faster and, no doubt, with the full approval of Russia and France, as well as with lasting benefits for world peace.

All right–I exaggerate a bit (though I do wonder if snatching the apple uneaten from Eve would these days constitute the sin of pre-emption). And the U.S. probably does wield more control over world affairs than over the movement of the planets. But by the yardstick of most criticism now leveled at President Bush for freeing Iraq, by the rhetoric of John Kerry, who has deemed the venture a failure involving “one miscalculation after another,” by lights of the chronic dismay over every setback or mistake in the face of 1,001 uncertainties, one might start to think America and its allies had on a whim invaded Sweden, reducing the place to the kind of condition you'd expect after about a quarter-century under Saddam.

This omits what has been the real threat and problem from the get-go. The Middle East is home to a gridlocked array of highly repressive governments, with their attendant secret police and highly controlled economies. To survive, people must as a rule make terrible compromises–just as they did in the U.S.S.R.–built around the institutions of dictatorship, and reinforcing those same repressive (and terror-promoting) institutions.

Baathism in Syria, for instance, doesn't just mean you must say only nice things about dictator Bashar Assad; it can also mean you are strong-armed into informing on members of your own family. Authoritarianism in Egypt doesn't just mean that Hosni Mubarak gets to be president for more than two decades; it also means that if you push for real elections you can end up in prison. Clerical rule as practiced in Iran doesn't just give the ayatollahs a hand in politics, it arms them with a global terrorist network and the power to smother an entire generation of young Iranians who would like them gone.

The issue, which should have figured even larger than it did in the debate over war in Iraq, was always how to change this dynamic. The experience of the modern world–in Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union–suggests that liberalization can indeed become contagious–though it might take more than 15 minutes, or even more than a year. It may now seem foregone that the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 would be followed within two years by the end of dictatorship in South Korea and the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. It may seem obvious these days that the countries of Latin America, which 30 years ago boasted wall-to-wall dictators, are now for the most part struggling to develop democratic institutions. But none of this seemed, at the time, a given.

It is now a scant 15 months since U.S.-led forces removed Saddam Hussein from power. By that timeline, if we look at events in Moscow, following the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the scene was hardly one of tranquil progress. Well over a year after the Soviet collapse, President Boris Yeltsin was fighting desperately to keep his footing, and still heading for the showdown in which, 22 months into the post-Soviet New World Order, he ordered tanks into central Moscow to battle an armed rebellion by the Soviet-holdover parliament.

Russia today is not a modern democracy, but neither is it the evil empire of the Soviet era. The trajectory has been from a chaotic post-Soviet mud fight toward an increasingly authoritarian state. That's disturbing, but less dangerous than the U.S.S.R., and not yet hopeless. And the results to the west of Moscow have been far more heartening than most Western newscasters or politicians have time to note these days. In the Baltics and Eastern Europe, a slew of nations once infested with Soviet-backed dictatorial governments have aligned themselves with the free world–Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic, to name a few. In these cases, the world has absorbed the idea that recovering from decades of totalitarian rule takes time.

But in matters involving Iraq, the Middle East or U.S. foreign policy generally, that lesson seems to have sunk right into the desert sands. There is no patience, no perspective, no margin in the public discourse for mistakes. Election-year politics in the U.S. has turned Democratic foreign-policy pronouncements into a grand game of gotcha. Anything that goes wrong is transmogrified into proof that everything was done wrong.

Abu Ghraib is flourished not simply as evidence that America made horrible mistakes in handling prisoners, but as an argument that the U.S. should never have gone into Iraq in the first place. Though had America stayed away, the murderous atrocities of Saddam would still be going on. And if experience is any guide, there would be no leaked Red Cross reports, no digital-photo exposés, no apologies, redress or reform. Just more mass graves.

In the current zero-tolerance scheme, President Bush should have done nothing about Saddam until he had full U.N. backing, until he could guarantee a war in which no one would die, and until he had a clockwork plan for transition that within the year could draw forth from Baathist-devastated Iraq a gracefully sustained and peaceful democracy. Maybe on Venus they've developed policies of such perfection. But not on Earth, not in this life.

In all likelihood, the best way to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq would have been to bust Saddam a lot sooner–giving Saddam himself a lot less time to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq. Instead, U.S. effort and energy was absorbed by the immense effort to win allies in the U.N. Security Council–chiefly France, Russia and China–who were neck-deep in oil deals with Saddam, much of that via the U.N.'s own Oil for Food program.

The need was to introduce into the Middle East the revolutionary idea (in theory and practice) that a tyrant could fall and be replaced by something better. Setting this in motion was a risk; not to do it would have been a greater risk. And although it is beyond the power of any of us to predict with perfect accuracy all outcomes, there has been a force set in motion in Iraq that may yet, given time, bring the Middle East into better alignment–if not with the stars, then at least with the Free World.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.