February 28, 2005


After 1/30/05: Just four weeks after the Iraqi election of January 30, 2005, it seems increasingly likely that that date will turn out to have been a genuine turning point. (William Kristol, 03/07/2005, Weekly Standard)

HISTORY IS BEST VIEWED IN the rear-view mirror. It's hard to grasp the significance of events as they happen. It's even harder to forecast their meaning when they're only scheduled to happen. And once they occur, it's usually the case that possible historical turning points, tipping points, inflection points, or just points of interest turn out in the cold glare of history to have been of merely passing importance.

But sometimes not. Just four weeks after the Iraqi election of January 30, 2005, it seems increasingly likely that that date will turn out to have been a genuine turning point. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, ended an era. September 11, 2001, ended an interregnum. In the new era in which we now live, 1/30/05 could be a key moment--perhaps the key moment so far--in vindicating the Bush Doctrine as the right response to 9/11. And now there is the prospect of further and accelerating progress.

I wonder if this strikes others as nonsensical. After all, by the time of the Wall's fall, and of the Iraqi election, the larger issue had already been determined. For the Cold War it seems easier to argue for any one of a series of earlier turning points: the Carter Administration's aid to the mujahadeen; Ronald Reagan's election; his Westminster Speech, in which he started us referring to the USSR in the past tense, as already failed; the acceptance a new class of missiles by the Europeans; or the announcement of Star Wars.

As far as this final war (WW IV?; the War on Terror?; the War against Islamicism?) is concerned there are likewise at least four points that were more determinative: either 9-11 itself or this speech, which dedicated the Bush presidency to a crusade; this speech, signalling that we would no longer honor the notions of stability and sovereignty where our enemies ruled; this one , which claimed the right to determine what kind of government nearly any state could have; or the re-election of George W. Bush over the Realist John Kerry, who'd run on a policy of disengagement and detente with the undemocratic Islamic world.

Any thoughts?

Major arrests show a shift in Iraq: Still, attacks continue, like the one in Hilla Monday that killed more than 100 people, despite detention of top militants. (Jill Carroll, 2/28/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

The arrest of seven key insurgents in the past two weeks, including Saddam Hussein's half-brother and top aides to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are giving a much-needed morale boost to Iraq's counterinsurgency efforts.

Indeed, some Iraqi officials see the momentum beginning to shift since the Jan. 30 elections. They say Iraqi citizens are providing more tips, and that a series of videotaped confessions by captured insurgents shown on Iraqi TV are helping discredit the rebels. "We are very close to al-Zarqawi, and I believe that there are a few weeks separating us from him," Iraq's interim national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie told the Associated Press.

Analysts agree that the string of arrests are likely to hurt the insurgency. But the decentralized nature of the uprising makes it difficult to dismantle. A massive car bombing in Hilla, Iraq, Monday underscored the point. The bomb exploded near a line of recruits for the Iraqi security forces in the southern Iraq town, killing more than 100 people, one of the largest death tolls from a car bomb in Iraq.

Seizing Saddam...and Kin (Marni Soupcoff, American Enterprise)
A curious thing has been happening amidst critics’ complaints that the United States is not focusing sufficiently on an exit strategy in Iraq, and that the Iraqis themselves can’t deal with the terrorists attacking them: the bad guys are getting caught. One of the most notable recent achievements was the capture of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother and former adviser Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2005 4:33 PM

I think you could argue that thatthe turning point of the Cold War was the "Tear down this wall!" speech. Unfortunately, like a tide, it's a gradual process marked by eddies and currents so pinpointing a single moment is probably futile.

Regardless, for WWIV, I'd put the turning point the day the invasion of Iraq started. That's when the USA really put it's money where it's mouth is.

P.S. Also note that Kristol is using a bait and switch - he starts with "turning point" and finishes with "vindicating" point. These are not the same thing.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 28, 2005 5:10 PM

I'd agree with oj that the turning point was much earlier, either 9/11 itself or I'd probably place it with our attack on Afghanistan. I'd pick Afghanistan since I don't put much faith in speeches, and that was, to me, the point where we committed to action. So that was the turning point from where we took virtually no action against the growing terrorist threat to where we began to take action.

The tipping point, on the other hand, is different for each person. The tipping point is where it became clear that the action and approach taken was clearly starting to have a positive and accelerating effect, and/or the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. For some, it was the same as the turning point, for others, we're not anywhere near there yet. For me, it was around the time of the elections in Afghanistan. The fact that we were able to build a nation in that backward country, even with France etc. doing everything they could to deter the process, and the fact that we were clearly going to have a chance for the same in Iraq meant that there was a clear and accelerating, if dangerous, path to modernizing the middle east, which in turn, would deprive Islamic terrorist of bases and funds.

Posted by: Bret at February 28, 2005 5:44 PM


It was superfluous by then.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2005 5:51 PM

If we define 'turning point' as when the momentum of the war changed permanently, I'd put the turning point of the Cold War as somewhere between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the publication of the Gulag Archipelago. From that moment forward, the Soviet Union's supporters ceased claiming that Soviet society and governance was better than the West, but claimed instead it was no worse. Their friends in the West were steadily marginalized over the decades afterward.

America has done some great things in the last few years and we've seen some real indications of significant change for the better in the Islamic World as a result. I would however refrain from crowing about success for a few years yet.

Posted by: Bart at February 28, 2005 6:14 PM


That's completely ahistorical. The Galbraith/Kissinger/Nixon/Carter crowd still thought the Soviet Union would endure permanently well into the 80s and that it was a viable form of liberal governance.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2005 6:18 PM


I don't agree with the collapse of the twin towers or the invasion of Afghanistan. Until the invasion of Iraq, it was still very conceivable that we'd respond to the challenge of WWIV in a minimalist, legalistic and futile way. Once the Iraqi border was crossed, it said that any oppressive regime, not just ones supporting terrorists who succeed in massive attacks in the USA, were at risk. The invasion also forced an entanglement in the region that was guaranteed to be long enough to start to see some of the benefits and not just the costs. Really, if Afghanistan hadn't gone well and we'd just abandoned the place, who would have cared?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 28, 2005 6:55 PM

Another factor no one has mentioned is Bush's re-election. Had Kerry been elected, it is probable we would have left Iraq too early, and have botched the job.

Posted by: jd watson at February 28, 2005 7:08 PM

Yamamoto agreed with you.

Posted by: ghostcat at February 28, 2005 7:14 PM

OJ, you simply should not take a USA-centric view of what happened. The paymasters of Kissinger and Nixon wanted to do business with the Soviets, sell them the rope by which they hang us. As for Galbraith and Carter, were they ever right about anything? The neo-conservatives were just starting and the hard-core anti-Soviet left in the Democratic Party, people like Scoop Jackson, Warren Magnuson, Hubert Humphrey, and of course Albert Shanker were a major force.

If you look at European election results, the Communist parties were shrinking. By 1974, the PCF was far smaller than the Socialists whereas in 1965 the Socialists were only a 5% party. The German SPD was run by a Cold Warrior, Helmut Schmitt. The PCI, under Berlinguer, was running, not walking, away from any relations with the Soviets even encouraging its membership to read Solzhenitsyn.

1968 was the start and by the time L'Archipel Goulag appeared in French bookstores, the ability of the Soviets to draw on actual support in the West, as distinguished from people who didn't like America for whatever reason, was over.

Posted by: Bart at February 28, 2005 7:16 PM

In the Cold War I believe a big turning point was when Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers. Apparently the politburo freaked out at that display of will.

The selection of JPII as Pope was also pivotal. Picking a Pole after centuries of Italians meant a lot in and of itself, even in absence of his leadership. Other key points include the introduction of North Sea crude and Saudi cooperation in lowering oil prices (taking hard currency away from the USSR) and the Israeli destruction of the Syrian Air Force, which flew the latest Mig-25s.

I agree it was important that we began to frame the Cold War in terms of human rights, but without hard nosed leadership, such rhetoric appears to be a tool of the weak.

Still not sure what the 'turning point' of the current conflict will be. I think it was a display of will in mid November 2001. At that time our offensive appeared stalled at Mazar e Sharif, the quagmire editorialists were in full voice, all sorts of credible sounding people-- I recall McCain and Fareed Zacharia -- counseled that we pump in 40,000 troops or stop for the brutal Afghan winter and hand things over to the UN.

W stuck with the plan and Rummy forced the brass to comply. There is a good Time article on it. We forget because this period of doubt only lasted 3 weeks, but a lesser leader would have folded or done something stupid like moving in a Soviet style invasion force, which would have played into the Taliban's hands or letting the UN broker hudnas, which would have legitimized them.

I belive mid Nov 01 is the point where Gore's approach would have diverged from Bush's. He lacks the confidence and will to stick withstand the the second guessing.

My 2 cents.

Posted by: JAB at February 28, 2005 7:21 PM

Of course I could be wrong. The reelection of Bush may prove the true turning point. The bad guys have a lot less hope of waiting us out now that the clock has been reset and W will have approx. 3 years to make his strategy permanent US policy.

Posted by: JAB at February 28, 2005 7:24 PM


Yeah, we could've still taken the minimalist approach, but we didn't - thus the invasion of Afghanistan could be described as the turning point. It's still possible, though I think unlikely, that we turn back now.

Posted by: Bret at March 1, 2005 1:33 AM

Not a turning point really, but for me, the inevitability of the USSR's collapse became clear to me when in the span of about 3 years (1982-1984)the Soviet Union had 4 leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernyenko & Gorbechev) and in the process, ran out of aging "1st generation comrads" to lead it.

The Poli Sci Dept. @ my alma mater actually had a "Comparative Communism" course offering until the mid-80's as well.

Posted by: Dave W. at March 1, 2005 3:26 AM

In terms of current events, if the "tipping" point can be defined as when a critical mass first rejected realism and saw that an underlying moral approach was needed, then what about Durban? The vilest anti-semitism since Streicher, but only the U.S. pulled out while the Euros and everyone else desperately sought compromise. I've always thought Powell deserved more credit than he got, but 9/11 came so quickly thereafter and people had other things to think about.

Posted by: Peter B at March 1, 2005 6:35 AM

Peter B,

Durban is important because it was the opening salvo, the harbinger, of the next great conflict. As America changes from being a 'White' nation to being truly multi-racial, or more accurately a new melange perhaps its own 'race,' our 'natural ties' with Europe will weaken not strengthen. The economies of Asia are growing rapidly while those of Europe are stagnant. The scientific establishment of Asia is growing, even today there is a report that the Japanese are planning a permanent moon base. Who could have imagined 10 years ago the close ties between and among the US, India, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand? And soon Vietnam will be on that list.

The old European powers like France, Germany, Russia and perhaps Britain will want to show that they still matter and could decide to join with the PRC in a bloc to impede the spread of our culture and values throughout the world. Think of it as a 'last hurrah.'This new war won't be much of a military fight, think Hagler-Minter or Ali-Coopman, but could create economic hassles for a while. Also, there is no shortage of people in America who think that Old Europe is still the fount of all wisdom, despite the fact that anyone there with any get up and go in the last 75 years or so, got up and came here.

Posted by: Bart at March 1, 2005 7:31 AM