Entries from February 2005

Up With Europe. Down With The European Union.

David Frum February 28th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

“Does America really want a strong Europe?” In the week leading up to President Bush’s European tour, this question was asked again and again by the continent’s journalists and diplomats–and Americans answered: “Yes, yes, of course we do.”

But one of the important lessons of the trans-Atlantic traumas since 9/11 is that while Europeans and Americans can easily agree that “Europe” should be “strong,” they do not so easily agree on what they mean by “Europe” or by “strength.”

To Europeans, “strengthening Europe” tends to mean vesting more powers in the central European Union (EU) bureaucracy in Brussels. To Americans, “strengthening Europe” tends to mean increasing the wealth and security of the countries that make up the European continent. Euro-enthusiasts may believe these two definitions can co-exist. But the evidence is accumulating that they cannot–that as the EU gets stronger, European nations fall further behind.


- Between 1970 and 1990, European labor productivity grew faster than did American productivity. By the early 1990s, the average Western European produced very nearly as much wealth per hour as did the average American.

In 1992, European governments signed the Maastricht Treaty, which created a single European market and changed the name of the old European Community to the new “European Union.” At the same time, the Europeans committed themselves to a new single continental currency, the Euro, and to the free movement of labor from one European country to another.

Theoretically, European productivity growth should have accelerated after 1992. Instead, it slowed–and at the same moment that U.S. productivity growth sped up.

Why? The answer remains controversial–but it certainly does seem as if the advantages of the single market were more than cancelled by the burden of heavier EU regulation.

- Since 1992, European governments have been trying to organize a common defense and foreign policy–one that downgrades the bilateral relationships between the United States and individual European countries. The Treaty of Nice, signed in 2001, ordered member states to subordinate their foreign policies to that of the EU; the European Constitution signed in 2004 attempts to shift control of foreign policy entirely away from member nations to the EU center.

But the attempt to run European foreign policy from Brussels has succeeded only in creating one furious internecine European quarrel after another.

In the Yugoslavian civil wars of the 1990s, France backed Serbia while Germany favored Croatia.

In Iraq, France, Germany, Belgium, and the EU bureaucracy have all ferociously opposed the United States, while most other EU member states have backed America.

And now, France and Germany are fomenting a conflict over China. In time, it could prove even more divisive than the squabble over Iraq.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the United States and the countries of Europe imposed sanctions on China. Most of those sanctions have long since been lifted, but one remains: a ban on the sale of lethal arms.

This ban continues because China remains an aggressive and potentially dangerous regime. Beijing has subsidized and supported North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons. It has repeatedly threatened to use force against Taiwan. In 1996, China actually fired missiles across Taiwanese shipping routes.

China is an emerging power, and we all hope it develops in a democratic and co-operative direction. But we don’t know that it will, and while the jury is still out, it seems only prudent to refrain from selling Beijing advanced weapons with which it can threaten democratic neighbors.

That, unfortunately, is precisely what the governments of France and Germany now wish to do. The arms industries of both nations have been ailing, France’s especially. In the 1990s, France sold an average of five billion euros worth of weapons annually. In 2002, that sales figure slipped to 4.4 billion, and in 2003 to 4.3 billion.

France has been losing market share in the rich democracies to advanced U.S. and British weapons systems, and to cheap Russian weapons in the Third World. French politicians see China as their weapon industry’s salvation.

But if the United States maintains its sanctions on China–and it will–European countries that sell arms to China risk being locked out of the huge U.S. market. The United States spends twice as much on military procurement as all the countries of the European Union combined.

For that reason, the single biggest European defense contractor, BAE (the former British Aerospace), has already signaled its intent to honor U.S. sanctions, regardless of what the EU does.

Since 1999, the Pentagon has treated BAE as if it were an indigenous U.S. corporation. BAE now sells more to the U.S. Department of Defense than it does to the British Ministry of Defense. It is not going to walk away from this in order to pick up a slice of whatever it is the Chinese have to offer.

The Italian company Finmeccanica, which just effectively won the contract to build the next generation of U.S. presidential helicopters, may well feel the same way, as may many defense contractors elsewhere in the continent.

The French- and German-led drive to impose their commercial policies on all of Europe will thus only divide and embitter Europe.

- Turkey has applied for membership in the European Union. This Muslim-majority nation is a NATO ally with a long-standing pro-Western orientation. Yet many Europeans flinch at the thought of admitting Turkey to the EU. If Turkey were to join, the Muslim share of the total EU population would shoot up from less than 5% to almost 20%. These new Turkish citizens of Europe would gain the right to move anywhere within the EU–a prospect that frightens many in the older member states.

The more tightly Europe integrates, the more frightened its member states become of new entrants perceived as different, whether they be Muslim Turkey today or poor Ukraine tomorrow.

- Europe politics has become vulnerable in recent years to the appeal of far-right parties. In France, the National Front finished second in the 2002 presidential race (although with less than 20% of the vote in both the first and second rounds of balloting).

Why do neo-fascist parties fare so well? They succeed (to the extent they do succeed) because the existing EU parties are inhibited by the traditionally staid rules of European politics from addressing voter concerns on hot-button issues such as immigration and crime.

And how have EU governments responded to the rise of these neo-fascist parties? Very largely by making their politics even more unresponsive and even less democratic.

In 2000, for example, Denmark staged a referendum, Europe’s first, on the adoption of the euro. Danish voters rejected the new currency. This was not at all a right-of-centre victory. On the contrary, the “no” camp cast the euro as a threat to Danish social services. Euro elites interpreted the vote as a warning that their currency project was unpopular–and carefully ensured that no other major European country was allowed a vote on the euro at all.

Yet it is precisely this sense that important decisions are made by invisible, unaccountable elites that feeds voter disdain for ordinary politics–and creates opportunities for neo-fascists to exploit.

- European fertility rates have fallen far below replacement levels. In Spain and Italy, the fertility rate is only about half the level necessary to keep the population stable.

Demographers do not agree on the reasons for the decline. Cultural factors such as the collapse of religious faith bear much of the responsibility, as is the weakening of marriage bonds across Europe. But surely, much of the blame must go to the high taxes necessary to sustain European welfare states. Many families simply cannot afford to have more children.

Yet the high-tax countries of the European Union, like Germany, are constantly pressing for the EU to force low-tax countries, such as Britain, to “harmonize” their tax rates with the others. Harmonization would insulate German industry from competition in the short run. But in the long run, it threatens to condemn the whole continent to demographic disaster.

The United States and Europe, and for that matter Canada, Australia and New Zealand, share a common civilization–and share as well a long list of dangerous common enemies. The growing separation between the United States and Europe is a civilization disaster, and the attempt to build Europe into a single state is the disaster’s single most important cause. Those European politicians who seek to create a new European identity to replace old national loyalties can succeed only by creating a new transatlantic “other”–a new American rival and antagonist–to lend emotion to their otherwise pallid bureaucratic project.

Those politicians have been hard at work for two decades, and they have achieved some dreadful and costly successes. Americans at last are waking up to the threat. Will Europeans? And before it is too late?

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

He Didn’t Start This Fire

David Frum February 22nd, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

You can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand it. We all know that there is a big problem in America’s relations with Europe. But even now–with President Bush traveling the continent on a major trip–most reports still fail to show even minimal understanding of what the problem is or how it came to be.


“In the 1990s, Europe and the United States worked well together. Then George W. Bush came into office and ripped up treaties like Kyoto and the Rome convention on an international criminal court. Despite their understandable resentment over these unilateral acts, Europeans nonetheless responded generously to the 9/11 attacks. ‘We are all Americans,’ said the headline on the editorial page of Le Monde.”


“Germany, France, and others supported the war in Afghanistan and the global war on terror. However, the leaders of those countries believed that the Iraq war violated international law. Fortunately, that argument is now behind us, and real co-operation is becoming possible again – if only George Bush can overcome his blindly ideological positions on Iran, Israel, the UN, etc. and co-operate with his more globally minded allies.”

Does this all sound familiar? It certainly should: It’s repeated often enough.

But repetition does not save the story from being rubbish.

The treaties George Bush “tore up” in 2001 were already long dead. Kyoto, for example, was signed in December, 1997, three full years before George Bush took office. In all that time, President Clinton never dared send it to the Senate for ratification – for the very good reason that the Senate had already voted 95 to nothing in July, 1997, that it would not ratify any climate-change treaty that exempted China, India and Mexico (which is just what Kyoto did). Ditto on the International Criminal Court. The Clinton administration signed that treaty in June, 1998, and likewise never sent it to the Senate. When George Bush rescinded U.S. signatures on those treaties, he was not telling Europe anything it did not know.

Nor is it exactly true that Euro-American relations were sailing along smoothly before 2001. Those were the years in which French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine was denouncing American “hyperpuissance”–and transforming the old European Community into a new European Union, with its own currency, army and constitution to rival the United States.

For that matter, let’s not over-estimate the sympathy Europeans expressed after 9/11. Few go on to read the editorial beneath Le Monde’s famous headline:

“[The] reality is perhaps also that of an America whose own cynicism has caught up with it. If bin Laden, as the American authorities seem to think, really is the one who ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, how can we fail to recall that he was in fact trained by the CIA and that he was an element of a policy, directed against the Soviets, that the Americans considered to be wise? Might it not then have been America itself that created this demon?”

The editorial’s claim that bin Laden was some kind of American creation was flatly wrong. But it is telling that the Le Monde editorialists would choose to believe this fiction. Within a very few months, a French author would sell 300,000 copies of a book that alleged that the 9/11 attacks were actually carried out by the Pentagon in order to justify attacks upon innocent Middle Eastern nations. A similar book later won a huge audience in Germany as well.

As for Iraq, the reality is again very different from the myth. France and Germany opposed the Iraq war not out of regard for international law, but because they affirmatively preferred the Saddam Hussein regime to the likely alternatives: a preference that Saddam recognized and rewarded with the billions of dollars of oil-for-food money that he directed to French and German corporations and individuals.

The Bush administration has to begin by understanding that the fundamental cause of the transatlantic rift is the ambition of the leaders of France and Germany to build the diverse countries of Europe into a European super-state dominated by the largest member nations; that is, themselves. This project is dangerously unpopular with many European voters. To overcome that unpopularity, those leaders have needed to mobilize a countervailing emotion: anti-Americanism.

Anti-Americanism has always been present in Europe, of course. But in the past–the missile deployment crisis of 1982 for example–European elites worked to soothe anti-Americanism. In 2002, the leaders of France and Germany stoked the anger instead. And they are still at it.

Only last week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder delivered a major speech in Munich arguing that NATO should be replaced as the foundation of the Western alliance. Instead of an alliance of the United States and 25 smaller partners, Schroeder would rather see an alliance of two great powers: the United States and an equally powerful Europe (with Canada presumably shoved to one side as a neglected junior associate).

The democratic nations face dangers enough without embarking on an unnecessary internal quarrel caused by French and German self-aggrandizement. The United States badly needs a new policy, one founded on resistance to the centralizing pretensions of the European Union. Now would be an excellent time to start.

Preserving The Legacy Of A Radio Legend

David Frum February 15th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The ancient Egyptians could scratch lines on a papyrus scroll, roll it up and put it in a jar in a dry cave–and 2,500 years later, the document would still be legible (assuming its discoverer could read ancient Egyptian).

Modern technology is more impressive, but also more fragile. Celluloid film decays, magnetic tape deteriorates, and all our digital information is stored in computer languages that will be a whole lot deader than ancient Egyptian in a tenth the time.

Recognizing the problem, archivists worldwide are inventing new ways to preserve and protect old audio-visual documents.

The U.S. Library of Congress has an “American Memory” archive that preserves, among other treasures, the early movies and recordings of the Edison Studios. (You can, for example, watch Annie Oakley sharp-shooting at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edac.html.)

The Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom likewise makes available a fabulous collection of photos, sound recordings and films, both online and at the museum itself.

Canada, too, has begun to take seriously the job of preserving its fragile audio-visual artifacts. In 1996, the National Archives of Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage began a program to identify and protect important AV works. Their first choices, announced in February 2000, give some idea of the range of works that are in danger: the original master recording of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, the first episode of La Famille Plouffe, broadcast back in 1953, and Goin’ Down the Road, the movie that more or less launched the idea of Canadian cinema.

The Masterworks program, as the preservation venture is called, announced yesterday that it had selected the As It Happens interviews of my mother, Barbara Frum, as one of its preservation choices for 2005.

This choice represents a major commitment of resources by the National Archives. It is a great honor for all who worked on As It Happens in those years–and built the program into an institution that continues to speak to Canadians more than thirty-five years after the first broadcast. As my family absorbs the honor, I find myself grappling–and not for the first time–with the question: What was it exactly that made Barbara Frum such a captivating presence on the airwaves?

Just a week ago, I had a long conversation with a distinguished American who held high office in the Reagan administration. “I disagreed with your mother about just about everything,” he said, “but I always said yes to interviews with her because I so loved her voice.”

When my mother began her career in radio, interviews were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, about five inches across. In those days, the CBC was headquartered on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, in an impossibly ramshackle and dingy building that had once been the Havergal girls’ school. Editing was done by hand-rewinding tapes and recording the desired bits onto a master. In a pinch, the editor might use a razor blade and adhesive tape.

Cumbersome as these methods were, they offered huge advantages over the still more cumbersome technologies of 1970s television. In 1971, a TV camera was a huge box weighing a couple of hundred pounds and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. There did exist smaller, lighter cameras that could film in the field–but that left the problem of how to get the film home. The Vietnam War is remembered as the first “living room” war, but the footage shown in those living rooms was usually at least two days old. It was recorded on the Indochinese battlefield, driven to an airport, flown back to the United States, developed–and then edited into a nightly news broadcast or special report. Radio, by contrast, could immediately go anywhere a telephone could be found.

That was the insight that led to the creation of the As It Happens program. What made the creation succeed was my mother’s gift and voice.

In her 1995 biography of my mother, my sister Linda Frum tells the story of how my mother once asked, “Linda, would you like to know the secret of interviewing?”

Sure, Linda answered.

“Ask short questions.”

A short question is a question designed to obtain an answer–and not to show off the brilliance of the questioner. In my own work, I often find myself sitting in the other chair: the chair of the interviewee. As the guest, you are theoretically the object of interest–but you quickly learn that it is the host who is the star. The guest plays the same role in the interview as a frog does in a classroom lecture on dissection: No frog, no lecture. Yet in the end, the frog’s role is essentially secondary.

What made my mother so dazzlingly effective on both radio and television was her repudiation of this starring role. Her carefully researched, precisely aimed, tautly edited questions always kept the spotlight fixed upon the amphibian she was about to slice.

What was the quality that enabled her to do her work so well? Intelligence, precision of mind and hard work all contributed. But ultimately, her achievement was one of character: of empathy and of humility. It is those qualities that will now be preserved for ears as yet unborn thanks to the National Archives of Canada and Masterworks.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

The Scandal That Is The United Nations

David Frum February 14th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

We will probably never know the full truth of the United Nations’ oil-for-food scandal. We will probably never see any of those implicated in the scandal punished. And that’s just the way the U.N. wants it.

The oil-for-food program began as a humanitarian plan to soften the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The U.N. would allow Iraq to sell a certain amount of oil each year, provided that the profits were used to buy food, medicine and other necessities for Iraq’s people.

Instead, the oil was allotted to politically connected insiders, allegedly including the head of the oil program himself. The insiders got rich while Iraq’s people suffered. One beneficiary of the program was U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s own son, who was employed by a firm that played a key role in the scandal-plagued program.

After months of resisting questions, Annan last year relented and appointed former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to investigate. Just over a week ago, Volcker released a preliminary report. It found “grave” conflicts of interest in the program. A final report is due later this year.

Yet there is reason to doubt the finality of that final report.

Volcker’s inquiry has been given sharply limited investigative powers. It can’t subpoena documents, and it cannot force anyone to testify.

Many on the inquiry’s staff are drawn from the U.N.’s own ranks and seem to share its institutional prejudices: The inquiry’s communications director had to resign in September after she gave an interview to a British newspaper in which she seemed to equate President Bush with Osama bin Laden.

Annan has said he will waive diplomatic immunity for any U.N. official who has done wrong. This promise means little. Which government would prosecute that official? Not the U.S. — the officials are not U.S. citizens, their offenses didn’t take place on U.S. soil, and none of the documents in question was sworn under U.S. law. It’s unlikely that Switzerland or Cyprus would wish to take action. And though the victims of the wrongdoing are the people of Iraq, the Iraqi courts are not exactly ready to indict, extradite and try suspects in a hugely complex financial conspiracy.

Meaningless ‘reform’

The likeliest result of the inquiry, then, is that an official or two will be condemned in the final report — and that in lieu of prosecutions, the U.N. will commit itself to a round of “reforms” intended to prevent such scandals in the future.

But U.N. reform is also a mug’s game. It should be remembered that Annan was once regarded as a reformer. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright engineered the retirement of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his replacement by Annan in 1997, in hopes that Annan would usher in a new era of integrity and accountability.

Such hopes have been disappointed. Under Annan, scandals have continued to accumulate at the U.N. Oil-for-food is only one entry in a list that also includes sex trafficking by U.N. officials in Bosnia and the Congo.

As for the clean break with the abuses of the past, that did not happen either: The Volcker commission names Boutros-Ghali as one of those who may have improperly profited from the oil-for-food program. (He dismisses the allegation as “silly.”)

A core of corruption

It’s time to wake up to reality: The U.N. scandals are not unfortunate accidents. They are not incidental blots on the reputation of an otherwise idealistic organization. The scandals are inherent in the very structure of the U.N. It could be said that the U.N. itself is the scandal.

Since the 1990s, the United Nations has aspired to larger and larger responsibilities. From Bosnia to Cambodia, from Iraq to the Congo, U.N. officials have administered vast aid programs — and sometimes even taken over the functions of governments.

But these officials don’t answer to taxpayers or voters. They answer to the U.N. secretary-general — who, in turn, answers to dozens of different governments. Many of these governments are authoritarian, corrupt and unaccountable themselves.

And their dirty ways of doing business are almost inevitably absorbed by the world bodies in which they are given a decisive role.

As a result, the office of the U.N. secretary-general acts like the management of an old-fashioned corporation before the advent of shareholder activism. It uses other people’s money for purposes of its own. Senior managers engage in profitable side ventures that top management may or may not know about. Questions are dismissed as irrelevant and impertinent. (It was not until January, for example — and then only under extreme pressure — that the U.N. made any of its internal audits of the oil-for-food program available to U.S. congressional investigators.)

The problem is not merely that the individuals in charge of the corporation are bad or dishonest, although of course many of them are. The problem is that they are presented with perverse incentives — with few or no controls on misconduct.

The U.N. can sometimes be a useful forum for the world’s governments to exchange views. But the idea that the U.N. secretary-general can act somehow as a global representative — or that the U.N. staff can function as an honest and effective international civil service — should be discredited forever by the oil-for-food scandal.

And the next time the world needs some humanitarian work done, let it be done by the International Red Cross.

Gomery Makes Strange Bedfellows

David Frum February 7th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

What is it with these Liberals? When Fox News wants to come to Canada, they go on about the distinctive Canadian way of life and the perils of U.S.-style politics. Yet let one of their own get into trouble, and nationalism flies out the window: Suddenly Warren Kinsella and Sheila Copps are belting out old hits from the Clinton impeachment songbook.

There’s the campaign of denigration against the investigator: “Gomery Pyle” as Kinsella calls him.

There’s the accusations of bias against everyone in sight, such as attorney Bernard Roy for having worked as Brian Mulroney’s principal secretary 20 years ago.

There are the incessant complaints about cost. Apparently it would be cheaper and more convenient to leave the truth safely covered up.

And of course, there are the insinuations of political conspiracy against poor little us — not a right-wing conspiracy this time, but nonetheless still vast. As Ms. Copps put it last week, “Judge Gomery had the auditor-general, the prime minister, the minister of public works, the leader of the opposition, and the leader of the Bloc Quebecois all on his side.”

Will these time-tested tactics work? It will be an interesting test — both of the tactics themselves and of the Paul Martin government.

Jean Chretien is scheduled to testify today; Martin, later this week. Chretien insists he’s done nothing wrong — or anyway that any wrongdoing was done to save Canada. It was patriotism that motivated the whole thing.

But Paul Martin: What will he do?

Martin, of course, wants to be perceived as a good-government man, cleaning up after an embarrassing predecessor. On the other hand, how many believe Martin really wants the full truth to be known about the Liberals’ 1990s-era scandals?

Judge Gomery’s report was scheduled to be delivered after the 2004 election — by which time, it was assumed in Ottawa, Martin would have won himself a majority. There would then ensue a month or two of tut-tutting, leaving three full years for the public to get bored with the story before the next opportunity to vote.

The plan went awry. Now the Martin government has to confront the likelihood that the Gomery report will be delivered to a Parliament in which the Liberals hold only a minority of seats, with an election possible at any time. Perhaps the PM is confident that nothing will be found to implicate him. In that case, of course, he has nothing to worry about. But what if there are some nagging doubts in his mind? Might he not privately welcome the shutting down of the inquiry — or failing that, a discrediting of its work?

Politics, the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows. Canadians may yet see Paul Martin sharing a bunk with Copps and Kinsella.

Should that day come, Canadians might also want to reflect on the reasons that the work of Judge Gomery is so important.

One-party states such as Canada are prone to corruption, as everybody knows. And on balance, Canada has fared pretty well compared to, say, Italy when it was dominated by the Christian Democrats, or India under the Congress Party, or Mexico under the PRI. But one reason Canada has fared well is that the natural tendencies of a one-party state have been checked by powerful institutional restraints: an honest civil service; a free press; competitive businesses who resent being squeezed for funds.

The behaviours that together we call the sponsorship scandal were aimed at weakening every one of these restraints. An entire department of state and all who work there are alleged to have been transformed (in the name of national unity) from public service to partisan warfare. Huge amounts of public money were spent on advertising in media outlets, inevitably dulling those outlets’ curiosity about possible wrongdoing by their advertisers. Instead of being victimized, businesses were cut in on the action: Some got sponsorship dollars in the form of ad commissions, others allegedly overcharged the program to compensate themselves for bills owed by the governing party.

How far did it all go? Who was involved? Every Canadian should demand answers. It’s not just money that has been lost; serious questions have been raised about the integrity of Canadian government.

Sheila Copps advises Post readers to conduct a cost-benefit analysis: Compare the amount of money at stake in the scandal (sum A) to the amount it costs to investigate the scandal (sum B). If sum B exceeds sum A, disregard and forget. If taken seriously, this advice would teach future political leaders: Steal, but don’t steal too much — or, if you must steal a lot, then make sure you steal in very complicated ways, so as to make any investigation cost even more.

That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another: Voters should demand honesty and the wise use of public funds in all cases, small as well as big. When dishonesty, abuse, or waste is alleged, voters should expect an accounting — even if the job is difficult, time-consuming or costly. And as for that old Clinton songbook: This is one case where those CRTC rules against imported content would serve the Canadian public well.

A Defeat For The Forces Of Fear

David Frum February 1st, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

After Monday’s euphoric response to Iraq’s elections, today will be a day for caveats. You’ll hear it said that elections are not the same as democracy, that many troubles lie ahead, that the insurgency remains alive and deadly. And all this is, of course, true.

But it is also true that the Iraq election is a transforming event, not just for Iraq but for the whole Muslim Middle East — an event so transforming that even now we have not yet absorbed its full importance.

All over the Islamic world, the leaders of the terrorist jihad, not only Osama bin Laden, but also his allies and competitors in Kashmir, in the Palestinian territories, in Algeria, in Indonesia, in Western Europe and now in Iraq, have claimed to be the authentic representatives of a global Islamic nation. They have dismissed existing governments as puppets of the infidel West and presented themselves as the only effective alternative.

These claims are lies of course, but they are lies with enough truth mixed in to sway a generation of Middle Eastern young men. Some naive apologists for terror have suggested that terrorism is an act of desperation by the poor and downtrodden. The truth about the terrorists is actually more disturbing: Many of them, and most of their leadership, come from elite backgrounds. They are well-educated, often with medicine or engineering degrees — young men with many choices in life. They are motivated, as were many of their Communist and Nazi antecedents, by a perverted sense of idealism.

Against that perverted idealism, what has the Middle Eastern status quo to offer? Other authoritarian regimes, China’s for example, can offer their people prosperity in exchange for political quiet. But the economies of the Arab Middle East have been failing for almost 20 years. They can offer nothing but unemployment and repression.

Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit under Bill Clinton and has since found a second career as an unsettlingly sympathetic analyst of bin Ladenism in books such as Imperial Hubris, gives this explanation of the Islamic terrorist’s appeal:

“In a world where Muslim leaders are mostly effete kings and princes who preach austere Islam but live in luxuriant debauchery; or murderous family dictatorships, like Iraq’s Husseins, Egypt’s Mubaraks, Libya’s Qadahfis, and Syria’s Assads; or coup-installed generals holding countries together after politicians have emptied the till,” bin Laden and his fellow extremists have won the aura of Robin Hood. “With no competition for the Muslim world’s leadership, and with their battles now seen globally in real-time by proliferating Arab satellite television and radio channels, the mujahideen hold the respect, gratitude, and love of many Muslims.”

Who could challenge these pretensions? The voters of Iraq just did.

We don’t know whether 50% or 60% or 70% of the eligible population voted. But we do know that millions of Iraqis defied fear and risked their lives to join a democratic political process. With those brave actions, they cut the heart out of the pretensions of the jihad terrorists. Those terrorists claim that Allah has appointed them to rule the Muslim world and that their willingness to kill and die is all the authority they need. A majority of Iraqis have just put their lives on the line to reject that claim.

The leaders produced by last weekend’s elections will no doubt have many defects and weaknesses. But they will, as elected leaders always do, boast one supreme strength: the legitimacy that comes from the most direct and obvious possible connection to the wishes of the people. The jihadis have responded to elections with murder, and that too has been seen globally and in real time on Arab media.

The terrorists have responded to the threat of political competition with hysterical denunciation. A week before the vote, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi issued an amazing statement denouncing the “evil principle” of democracy and declaring something close to religious war, not only against the American infidels, but against Iraq’s majority Shiite population. This is not a winning political strategy to put it mildly.

Zarqawi’s response to the election has now put him, his car-bombers and his assassins on the wrong side of three great moral divides. Politically, what was once a war against an occupation government has been redefined as a war against democracy. Religiously, what was once a Muslim campaign against foreign Christians has been redefined as an extremist Sunni war against Iraq’s Shiites. And nationalistically, what was once a war against the Americans has been redefined as a war against the government and the armed forces of an emerging democratic Iraq.

None of this means that America’s problems in Iraq have come to any kind of end or even that the end is close at hand. What it does mean though is that George Bush’s definition of the conflict has just been endorsed by a large majority of the people of Iraq. This is freedom at war with fear. And fear has just lost a hugely important battle.