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JEFF JACOBY

The Arab spring

''IT IS time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language. That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right."

Thus spake columnist Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star, author of such earlier offerings as ''Incurious George W. can't grasp democracy," ''Time for US to cut and run," and, as recently as Jan. 25, ''Bush's hubristic world view."

The Axis of Weasel is crying uncle, and much of the chorus is singing from the same songsheet.

Listen to Claus Christian Malzahn in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel: ''Could George W. be right?" And Guy Sorman in France's Le Figaro: ''And if Bush was right?" And NPR's Daniel Schorr in The Christian Science Monitor: ''The Iraq effect? Bush may have had it right." And London's Independent, in a Page 1 headline on Monday: ''Was Bush right after all?"

Even Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's ''Daily Show" and an indefatigable Bush critic, has learned the new lyrics. ''Here's the great fear that I have," he said recently. ''What if Bush . . . has been right about this all along? I feel like my world view will not sustain itself and I may . . . implode."

For those of us in the War Party, by contrast, these are heady days. If you've agreed with President Bush all along that the way to fight the cancer of Islamist terrorism is with the chemotherapy of freedom and democracy, the temptation to issue I-told-you-so's can be hard to resist.

''Well, who's the simpleton now?" crows Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times. ''Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?" On the radio the other day, Rush Limbaugh twisted the knife: ''The news is not that Bush may have been right," he chortled. ''It's that you liberals were wrong." The gifted Mark Steyn, in a column subtitled, ''One man, one gloat," writes: ''I got a lot of things wrong these last three years, but, looking at events in the Middle East this last week . . . I got the big stuff right."

Well, I'd say I got the big stuff right too. And as a war hawk who backs the Bush doctrine, I find the latest developments in the Arab world especially gratifying. But this triumphalism makes me uneasy. This is the Middle East we're talking about, after all. And we have been here before.

It was only 22 months ago that Bush flew a Navy jet onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and emerged to tell the world: ''In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." War hawks and Bush supporters were ecstatic, but thousands of US and Iraqi deaths later, it is all too clear how premature that ''Mission Accomplished" exultation was. Likewise the rapture that greeted the signing of the Oslo accord in 1993. When Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands, they unleashed a euphoric certainty that Israeli-Palestinian peace had been achieved at last. In retrospect, that euphoria looks not just ridiculous, but tragic.

None of this is to minimize the extraordinary changes unfolding in the Arab world. Iraq's stunning elections have given heart to would-be reformers across the region. In Beirut, tens of thousands of anti-Syrian demonstrators brought about the fall of Lebanon's pro-Damascus quisling government. (As of last night, however, the Lebanese Parliament was poised to restore the ousted premier.) Saudi Arabia held municipal elections, the first democratic exercise the Ibn Sauds have ever allowed. On Monday, hundreds of activists demanding suffrage for women marched on Kuwait's parliament. Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak has promised a genuine (i.e., contested) presidential election. And Syria's military occupation of Lebanon is drawing such international condemnation that Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator, has begun to pull his troops back to the Bekaa Valley.

It is being called an ''Arab Spring," and Bush's critics are right to give him credit for helping to bring it about. What his allies need to bear in mind is that cracks in the ice of tyranny and misrule don't always lead to liberation.

In 1989, a global wave of democratic fervor brought tens of millions of anticommunist demonstrators into the streets. In Eastern Europe, that wave shattered the Berlin Wall, freed the captive nations, and eventually ended the Cold War. In China, by contrast, it was stopped by the tanks of Tiananmen Square and the spilling of much innocent blood.

''At last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun," said President Bush on Tuesday. Let us all pray that it continues and that the long winter of Arab discontent is finally giving way to a summer of liberty and human rights. There will be time enough for gloating if it does.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.


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