It was not naive idealism, it should be recalled, that gave birth to Bush’s diplomacy of freedom. That diplomacy issued out of a reading of the Arab-Muslim political condition and of America’s vulnerability to the disorder of Arab politics. The ruling regimes in the region had displaced their troubles onto America; their stability had come at America’s expense, as the scapegoating and the anti-Americanism had poisoned Arab political life. Iraq and the struggle for a decent polity in it had been America’s way of trying to extirpate these Arab troubles. The American project in Iraq has been unimaginably difficult, its heartbreak a grim daily affair. But the impulse that gave rise to the war was shrewd and justified.

Nowadays, more and more people despair of the Iraq venture. And voices could be heard counseling that the matter of Iraq is, for all practical purposes, sealed and that failure is around the corner. Now and then, the memory of the Vietnam War is summoned. America had lost the battle for Vietnam but had won the war for East Asia. That American defeat had brought ruin to Vietnam and Cambodia, but the systems of political and economic freedom in Asia had held, and the region had cushioned the American defeat, and left a huge protective role for American power. Fair enough: There was Japan in East Asia, providing political anchorage and an example of economic success. There is no Japan in that arc of trouble in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are poor pillars, themselves prey to forces of radicalism–the first weak in the scales of military power, the second a brittle, crowded land with immense troubles of its own. That overall strategic landscape, too, should be considered as we debate and anguish over Iraq.

If, as seems disturbingly likely, Bush takes the Baker approach, I think we’ll pay dearly in the future.