Democracy in Iraq
Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus have given their testimony to Congress regarding the progress of the Iraq War. As expected, they report that affairs in Iraq are generally under control and improving, although perhaps more slowly than some hoped and expected. George Bush will withdraw 20,000 troops, then halt troop withdrawals over the summer.
Even with this setback, conditions in Iraq seem to be getting better. It is possible to see an end in sight, an end that will result in victory. If our government gives General Petraeus a chance, we can still win in Iraq.
Many, both on the left and on the right, have criticized the Bush Administration’s strategy of the early years on the war. It is undeniable that it was ineffective—the administration seemed to have no real vision for success, and was incredibly slow to adjust to new realities. It is fortunate that they eventually realized that their strategy wasn’t working, but it is impossible to wonder how many lives, and how much money, would have been saved had the administration adjusted earlier. Most people do wonder about this, and the administration has taken significant and well-deserved criticism for their management of the war.
But the mismanagement of the war was not the only problem with Bush’s Iraq strategy. He misunderstood one of the key tenets of the war—the idea that we could bring democracy to Iraq, and then (by some odd theory of causation) the whole Middle East. It’s a nice thought—but it doesn’t work that way in real life. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the ultra-aggressive neo-cons radically underestimated the difficulty of bringing democracy to Iraq.
Consider the history of democracy in the United States. America was the perfect place for democracy to develop—it had none of the oligarchial ruling traditions of more established territories, its culture combined the respect for democracy of Ancient Greece with Christianity’s respect for individual rights, and our Founders were some of the most brilliant men in history. And our democracy still almost collapsed twice in the first hundred years after its founding; first during the disastrous years following the Articles of Confederation, then during the Civil War.
In France, which had similarly fertile ground for democracy, democracy didn’t even outlive the French Revolution. France rejected a monarchy—and got a military dictatorship.
If democracy couldn’t survive in liberal (in the old sense) France, and could barely survive in America, what made Bush and the rest of the neocons think that it would instantly take hold in Iraq? Few people would argue that Islam is a more hospitable place for democracy than the West. In addition, Iraq really isn’t a country with any sort of tradition or ruling class—it is a creation of colonial administrators of the British Empire. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the only form of government in Iraq has been the survival of the fittest. There have been at least four coup d’etats in Iraq over the last half century, and then Saddam Hussein’s quarter century of absolute power. Hardly a good tradition for a democracy.
The U.S. should have let Iraq choose its own leader and form of government. It probably would not have been a democracy, and the leader probably wouldn’t have been perfect, or even particularly good. But we would have saved billions of dollars, and thousands of lives. And the leader chosen would have at least been strong and effective, unlike Nouri al-Maliki.
However, the Bush Administration did decide to set up a democracy in Iraq. That was probably a mistake, but we can’t reach into the past and correct our blunders. We have no choice but to create an Iraqi democracy, or else experience a humiliating defeat. General Petraeus is unusually competent, and there is good reason to believe that our military will succeed in its mission. Even if it is the wrong mission, we must still accomplish it. We cannot afford a defeat at the hands of al-Qaeda.