Our very last troops in Iraq have left for home. And, of course, Iraq is no longer ruled by the Ba’athist tyrant who murdered so many people both within his own country and in Iran that he should be counted in the bloody second circle right behind Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. History will record George Bush’s daring in confronting this aggressor-dictator (comparing this daring to the pusillanimity of his father whose secretary of state, James Baker, was actually a fan of Saddam Hussein). And it should also reward his foresight in grasping that Hussein’s downfall alone would not be enough to turn the country into a civilized place. Of course, dreadful errors were made in pursuing the war, some of them through vainglory, others in trying to meet the objections of the demagogic Democratic opposition at home. Much of this opposition was actually ugly, and there was a certain smug satisfaction in various American environs when the bloody habits of armed gangsters, both Shia and Sunni, took over the supposedly liberated streets and neighborhoods, mosques and marketplaces of the country. Still, as a Democrat of a certain critical sort, it shamed me that the party itself appeared to be quite content to leave the old tyranny in place. I don’t really know how genuine the Republicans are in their vague intentions to rid some countries of their tyrannous rulers. It’s altogether clear, however, that Democrats no longer give a damn. What the odds are of Americans (or anyone else, for that matter) midwifing a truly civil society in the Arab world is anybody’s guess. Thus far … well, thus far the odds are long, very long. The Arabs themselves have never tried. Can they? Who knows? But the Democrats want it both ways: Everybody can have democracy. But it’s too dangerous for us to help.

President Obama substituted his enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan for the war in Iraq already during the campaign, and he did so to show that he, too, could fight … or rather that he, too, could send our armed men and women into harm’s way for some good end. But turning Afghanistan into the good war was just about an impossible task, not because the Afghanis deserve rule by religious fanatics or by drug lords but because the country itself is hardly a country, as Rory Stewart has shown in his prize-winning book, The Places In Between. You can learn from this at once lyrical but factual narrative of the grim realities on the ground, of the roguish charm of many of its people, of the hold of the past on the future, a tenacious and unrelenting hold. This is, alas, one of those places that may in some vague way, maybe through its intellectuals, aspire to nationhood, but it is doomed to ungovernability.  

Richard Holbrooke was posted to the country … which also meant to be posted to Pakistan. He was one of those dazzlingly genius individuals who could somehow bridge vaunting ideas and different worlds while making his associates feel they were doing something both dreamy and very practical. But he got little support from Obama, who simply couldn’t deal with an independent diplomat who knew both the limits and possibilities of diplomacy. More than that: Despite the president’s encomium at the Washington memorial service for Holbrooke, he just didn’t like Holbrooke, who was too smart, had too many ideas, and very much wanted to be heard. Holbrooke’s ambitions offended Denis McDonough and James Jones, I suppose on behalf of the president who, though not very knowledgeable about so many matters in international affairs, likes to come up with new ideas of his own. It was left to Hillary Clinton to rescue Dick from dismissal, a very honorable act. And then he died. 

Though Iraq and Afghanistan are somehow linked together in the public mind, they are not similar. Iraq is probably the most modern Muslim country economically, though Indonesia is more developed politically. But Iraq’s salience is not felt in the wider Muslim world but in the Arab Middle East plus both Turkey and Iran on its borders. Turkey did not allow U.S. troops to enter Iraq over its airspace. America was making war on another Sunni regime. The Ottomanists felt some Sunni fraternal ties to the Ba’athists who themselves were not especially religious. First off, they would have wanted to keep the Shia from ruling. The Turks lost that wager. They also hoped that the Kurds could be prevented from having something like a state, which is precisely what they have now: yes, something very much like a state. So the Ankara-Baghdad connection was already very much frayed when Americans began to leave Iraq.

The Sunni-Shia break became ever more serious. Bloody it already always was. Iraq is, for all intents and purposes, now a Shia state, which connotes an anti-Sunni state. This means that it needs to resist the Sunni typhoon now gathering in Syria. It’s also why Iraq has been in dissent from the Arab League moves against the Assad onslaught in Sunni areas of Syria. Perhaps the most devastating and intrinsic evidence of how deeply Shia the rulers in Baghdad are is the fact that on the very morrow of the U.S. departure for Kuwait, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki had Sunni Vice President Tariq Al Hashimi arrested and charged with all kinds of crimes, including murder. By the way, America left most of its military hardware in the country. This belongs, we are told, to Iraq. A comprehensive report of all these happenings is to be found in the Christian Science Monitor. My wager: The reports will get worse.

The reports from what is now Arab Winter are desolating. (I know the analogy of the seasons is a cliché by now.) In any case, the news is not only chilling but searing hot. If even the Arab League admits that there are already 5,000 dead in Syria there likely are many more. The opposition announced late Monday that at least 114 in its ranks had been killed during the day, including 80 army defectors. Syria is less lucky than Egypt because it is a French imperial paste job of sects, ethnicities, and tribes. If the House of Assad falls that does not necessarily mean the Alawite pyramid collapses. And, if it does, nothing like civilized rule will replace it. You believe otherwise? Just wait.

If you were compelled to make a choice in Egypt, who would you anoint? Of course, we won’t be anointing anyone. The Egyptians will … and maybe more by gang warfare than by suffrage. Many of us were thrilled when, in the early weeks of the rising, respectful and respected folk committed acts of bravery, of decency, of ethical clarity. It turns out that these men and women, mostly but not all young and youngish, were less in number than they seemed. It is now the military, a somewhat reformed military, versus the religious ultras that are fighting for the rule and the soul of Egypt. The Obama administration has not given so much as a hint as to whom they favor. Early in the process, they were for Mubarak. Hillary declared him and his wife “friends of my family.” Then the administration switched. I suspect—but I certainly don’t really know—that the president himself would tilt towards the orthodox Muslims, the fanatics. And he probably believes that, if only Israel would stop building housing in Jerusalem, the fanatics would stop being fanatics.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.