A friend asked me that as the Iraq war was drawing to a close and jubilant Iraqis were showing their feet to torn-down images of Saddam Hussein. It was a friendly jab, referencing my prewar skepticism and my early-war criticism of the pro-war gang’s hubris. (Click here.) Confused, moi?

I opposed the war on the basis that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein–more a potential threat than an actual one–did not warrant full-scale invasion and occupation, and that his defiance of the United Nations should first have been met with aggressive and intrusive inspections, perhaps inspections with a military component. But Bush took the cowboy approach. The war–as devastating as it was to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who lost lives, limbs, loved ones, homes and business–went well (for a war, that is), despite early concerns about the war plan. And only a war critic brimming with resentment and rooting for George W. Bush and the United States to receive their comeuppance (at the expense of the Iraqi people) could not have been heartened to see happy Iraqis celebrating the end of Hussein’s brutal dictatorship. Their “liberation” did not, ex post facto, justify the earlier claims that this war was being waged for liberation. The war was mostly sold–too often with lies and distortions–as necessary to protect the United States from a madman supposedly wielding weapons of mass destruction and who was (as Bush claimed without evidence) “dealing” with al Qaeda. The toppling of Hussein’s dictatorship is a positive result of what was a cynical and truth-defying campaign for war.

With the United States more or less in control of looting-ridden Iraq, there was nothing confusing about what should come next: a swift transition to an Iraqi interim government, international participation in the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq, the fulfillment of the US commitment–in terms of money and attention (but, one could hope, not too many troops)–to a democratic Iraq that serves the interest of its people, and an embrace of humility by the conquering Bush crowd as it basks in the glow of victory.

And it is certainly not confusing that there will be fights over much of this, especially the humility part. Even before the looting was over, the Bush administration official was issuing very public threats against Syria. If indeed Syria had been permitting anti-American fighters to cross its border into Iraq and allowing Iraqi officials and weapons scientists to head the other way, US warnings could have been conveyed through phone calls, diplomatic channels, and intelligence-service-to-intelligence-service communications. The Bush gang quite deliberately chose to throw their elbows around for all to see–just at a moment when other nations and populations might have felt a bit reassured about US intentions if a measure of restraint had been demonstrated.

Restraint does not seem to be part of the plan, at least not that part of the plan being pushed by outside-the-government advocates of more confrontation. Earlier today, I attended a conference at the American Enterprise Institute where leading neoconservative policy-peddlers–Richard Perle, Joshua Muravchik and Michael Novak–shared their view of the days ahead. It sort of boiled down to this: the United States should do what it wants to do in Iraq, continue to dismiss allies that opposed the war and freeze them out of postwar Iraq, and develop a better global message strategy without pausing to reconsider any of its actions or policies.

Muravchik focused on that last point. He called for the administration to wage a “war of ideas and a campaign of explanation” to win support for this war and other uses of force that may come. The goal, he said, would be to “alleviate some of the fearfulness that is there and that to an extent is understandable.” When there is “no balance of power in the world,” he remarked, “that makes people uneasy and we need to do some work” to calm their fears. He was not too specific about how to achieve this. He did decry the demolition of the US Information Agency, for which he largely blamed Senator Jesse Helms, and he derided the Bush administration’s PR effort that developed pro-US ads to air overseas. But the only concrete proposal Muravchik offered was a throwback to the Cold War days. He noted that a “critical asset” in that era’s war of ideas were ex-communists and ex-Marxists–Whittaker chambers, Sidney Hook, Jay Lovestone–who “understood how to argue against the other side.” But, he added, “there are no comparable cadres of ex-Islamacists or ex-terrorists….So we need to do some creative thinking to create some cadre of that sort.”

Muravchik’s presentation raised the question, is the problem the message or the actions of the US government? One member of the audience mentioned the (inadvertent) attacks on Abu Dhabi television, al-Jazeera, and the Palestine hotel (home to journalists) and the looting of Iraq’s national museum and library, and she asked him, “What affect does this have on the war of ideas?” His reply: “Hey, nobody’s perfect. That’s my serious answer. The idea that Iraqi liberation could be an immaculate conception is unrealistic.” He conceded that the United States could have done more to prevent the museum looting. But Muravchik demonstrated little regret over events that–for legitimate reasons or not–provoked outrage within parts of the Arab world. In the war of ideas, this was hardly a step forward.

I asked if Washington’s postwar decisions and statements caused trouble for US message-makers, and listed a few: threatening Syria, considering ex-CIA director Jim Woolsey to guide the new information ministry in Iraq (a Pentagon move nixed by the White House), stating that the United States desires a democratic and Israel-friendly government in Iraq, and taking primary control of Iraq’s rehab rather than collaborating with the UN and other nations. Muravchik replied that he was not suggesting that “we should solve our PR problems by changing our policies….It may be our policies will arouse opposition.” He added, “our policies are not self-aggrandizing or [ones of] self-interest.” These policies, he explained, were based on the principle “that we defend our own defense interests as well as security interests of the whole region.” I would give Muravchik points for sticking to his guns. But might overseas ears discern a hint of self-righteousness in his remarks? Let’s hope that will get lost in the translation.

When Muravchik finished his answer, his friend, Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, showed why overseas message-development is not this crowd’s forté. He defended Woolsey’s participation in Iraq’s postwar government, declaring that the ex-CIA chief, a cheerleader for the war, worked hard for the liberation of the Iraqi people: “That’s how the Iraqi people will regard him….If Egyptians or Syrians ignore that…so be it.” Perle was arguing that there was no reason to bother considering how appointing a former CIA director to the group in charge of the new Iraqi government might play among Arabs outside Iraq (and he was assuming Iraqis would think it a rather swell idea). His message: the United States does not have to worry about appearances or about providing war-of-ideas ammo to skeptics overseas. As they might say where Perle maintains a vacation home, Quelle arrogance!

Novak, too, seemed to have a tough time seeing the view from the other side. He noted that civilian casualties had been light in the war, but he did not acknowledge that the Arab media was full of images showing dead and maimed children. Light for whom? And he dismissed European concerns about the war as being motivated by “an unexpressed fear about the failure of Europe.” Europeans, he explained, are in a funk. The creation of the European Union and the introduction of the euro did not lead to a grand European revival. Unemployment remains a problem, as does what Novak referred to as “the demographic decline of Europe.” He described this “decline” as the “German part of Germany” and the “French part of France “shrinking.” (Is it a “decline” because the citizenry of these nations are increasingly immigrants?) This in-crisis Europe, he argued, craves peace and quiet and simply “can’t stand” to see the United States inconvenience the world by declaring and actually prosecuting a war on terrorism.

Was this more material for Muravchik’s war of ideas? How will the you-hate-us-because-you-loathe-yourself message resonate in Europe? There is little doubt that the decisions of France, Germany and other states are influenced by their own national and political interests (duh!) and that (irrational and rational) anti-Americanism can pollute the debate. But by refusing to recognize that UN Security Council members and US allies had legitimate reasons for opposing the invasion and for suggesting a beefed-up inspections process as an alternative, Novak displayed screw-you smugness unlikely to win friends and influence people abroad.

Perle, no surprise, did disdain best. He scoffed at bringing the UN into the postwar picture. He expressed no desire for reconciliation with the French and the Germans. (He didn’t even mention the Russians, the Chinese, the Mexicans, or the Canadians.) And he assumed the Iraqi people felt the same. “I think we can forgive the next Iraqi government for not welcoming President Chirac,” he remarked. He added, “magnanimity in victory” does not mean inviting people who opposed the “liberation of Iraq” into the “reconstruction of Iraq.” The argument, he asserted, that Washington needed these other nations–either to fund the postwar efforts or grant them legitimacy–“is quite fundamentally wrong.” His line: America knows best and it alone ought to decide. “What we have won on the battlefield,” he commented, “is the right to establish consistent policies that are for the benefit of the people of Iraq….It is not as if we are looking for anything for ourselves.” (A historical note: In 1998, Perle, Woolsey, William Bennett, William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others sent a letter to President Clinton calling for the United States “to take the necessary steps, including military steps [in Iraq], to protect our vital interests in the Gulf.” Their letter contained not one word regarding liberation or democracy in Iraq.)

Perle is not the sort to reach out. “We mustn’t apologize for further wanting to manage the liberation of Iraq,” he said. He talked about bringing about a “free and self-governing Iraq,” but did not explain why it was up to the United States–not the Iraqis–to select which nations and international bodies should play key roles in postwar development. And he argued that in no way should US actions in Iraq be linked to the Middle East process. It would be, he said, “a great mistake” if a revived peace process “was understood to be kind of a compensation to Arab opinion for what was done in Iraq. It would only diminish the nobility of what was done in Iraq.” Once more, the neocons are signaling to the Arab world: don’t expect Washington to consider your concerns as it projects power in your region. It also was a sign that Bush and Powell, who have taken tentative steps regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can expect to be ambushed rather soon by their neocon allies. (Perle did express an idea that may be well-received by some populations overseas. He called for cancellation of the foreign debt owed by Iraq–whose principle creditors happen to include France, Germany and Russia. Perle said that as a general rule he favors forgiving “foreign debt accumulated by dictatorial rulers,” noting that would provide a disincentive to states and international banks to lend to thugs. Not a bad notion–and perhaps it can be applied for the benefit of the people of the Congo, Zaire, Angola, Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan.)

There is no confusion about how the Bush administration and its necon pals see the Iraq war: this is just the beginning. Most Iraqis at this point do seem to have cause to be thankful the neoconservatives won the policy battle within the Bush administration. But few critics of the war expected the war portion of the invade-and-occupy-and-then-project-power-further-into-the-Middle-East plan to be the difficult stage. It was round one of what promises to be a long bout–and Bush and his comrades are not taking off the gloves. Not even to rest and reflect. Not even to consider the anxieties, tensions and conflict caused by the war. Not even to gloat in a relaxed moment. It’s on to Damascus or wherever the crusade leads. At the end of this war, hubris has not been beaten into humility. It reigns and grows fat on the sweet nourishment of victory.