Nuturing Iraqi Democracy

Three years ago just before the war to liberate Iraq began, the iconic Conservative of the age, William F. Buckley, Jr., observed that “What Mr. Bush proposes to do is to unseat Saddam Hussein and to eliminate his investments in aggressive weaponry. We can devoutly hope that internecine tribal antagonisms will be subsumed in the fresh air of a despot removed, and that the restoration of freedom will be productive. But these concomitant developments can’t be either foreseen by the United States or implemented by us. What Mr. Bush can accomplish is the removal of a regime and its infrastructure. The Iraqi people will have to take it from there.”

The United States military, led by President George Bush, accomplished the first task in short order and with minimal destruction and loss of life. The second task is still underway. Though the collective decision of Iraqis in the long run will be dispositive, the burden is not entirely theirs. The likelihood that democracy and freedom will take root depends on the fertility of the Iraqi soil, and, over this, the US has little control. However, in the short run, democratic sprouts need to be protected from the predations of radicals who would prematurely trample these promising seedlings.

The recent sectarian violence provoked by attacks on mosques has raised the question as to whether the spin up of violence will throw apart the fragile association of Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds that were previously forcibly crushed together under the brutal and bloody boot of Saddam Hussein. The media devoted almost hysterical attention to the violence, perhaps too willing to assume the worst. According to General George Casey, Commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq, the violence has been challenging but exaggerated by press reports.

Nonetheless, the press reports have persuaded Bill Buckley that, despite our best efforts to nurture freedom and representative government, the Iraqis have already chosen violence and authoritarianism. “The great human reserves that call for civil life haven’t proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols.” Buckley concludes that the ambitious assumption that democracy would grow under these conditions has now been refuted by the evidence and we need to take a different direction.

However, Buckley’s pessimistic assessment is perhaps premature. Despite the violence, there have been a number of positive signs that are too often neglected. There have been three elections where the Iraqi people bravely endorsed representative government even though voting entailed, in some cases, great personal risk. A constitution has been agreed to and we hope that a new permanent assembly will soon be formed. This progress is remarkable considering that Iraqi democratic muscles have atrophied under decades of forced inactivity.

Violence against people and mosques are hardly the acts of indigenous groups popularly supported by the people. If the insurgents really had deep and wide popular support then elections not violence would be their key to power.

Part of the reason that violence has been directed against civilians is that insurgents have been frustrated in their attacks against Coalition forces. Though the numbers of Coalition deaths per week ebb and flow, they have shown a steady decline in recent months. This decrease in effectiveness against Coalition troops is even clearer in the more statistically reliable injury rates. Violence against civilians represents military and political weakness not strength.

Buckley’s conclusion that the Iraqis are perhaps not ready yet for democracy is perhaps best refuted by the fact that the alternative policy, the policy of acquiescing to tyrants in the region, failed to bring stability in the past. Al Qaeda rose in power to a point of being able to execute a massive terrorist attack killing 3,000 Americans in New York and Washington during a period when the approach of “realism” rather than democracy guided American foreign policy.

Iraqis must still choose the kind of people they want to be and the government they want to have, but our faith that democracy will take hold is a necessary faith. The alternative is a return to the conditions of September 10, 2001.

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