Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, January 28, 2005


With two days to go before the elections, it's a good time to step back and reflect on what has been accomplished in Iraq.

Democracy in the Middle East. Two years ago, it was something I and many others barely dared to hope for. The West would probably not do the job right. Throughout the 1990s, despite vast military prowess of a certain kind, we were so casualty-averse as to be helpless against urban guerrillas, as we proved in Mogadishu. And democracy depended on culture and institutions, right? Surely there was something paradoxical or impossible about "imposing" it by force? This Cato paper sums up the conventional wisdom:

Why are Islamic (and especially Arab) countries' democratic prospects so poor? After all, in most Muslim countries a high level of popular support exists for the concept of democracy. In practice, popular support for democracy is a necessary, but is not a sufficient, condition for democratic institutions to emerge. Other factors are necessary. Hypothetical support for representative government, absent tangible support for liberal political norms and values and without the foundation of a pluralistic civil society, provides neither sufficient stimulus nor staying power for democracy to take root. That reality was borne out over the past generation in numerous countries where authoritarian regimes were displaced by newly democratic regimes but democratization failed because of shallow foundations.

The building blocks of a modern democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, and legislatures. Rather, the building blocks of democracy are supportive cultural values--the long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture.

Four cultural factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a stable democratic political system. The first is political trust. The second factor is social tolerance. The third is a widespread recognition of the importance of basic political liberties. The fourth is popular support for gender equality.

Bush's vision of bringing democracy to the Middle East was dismissed by the cognoscenti as a sheer flight of fantasy, at once hubristic and so naive as to be almost childlike, and while bloggers like "Excitable Andrew" Sullivan may cheered, the intelligentsia of Europe and America was amazed and disgusted, banding together in grim solidarity against the Bush menace, murmuring against the administration with varying degrees of incredulity and apoplexy.

And yet here we are, two years later, and the Iraqis are about to vote. Well, Ted Kennedy's still calling for a withdrawal, insisting that

We must learn from our mistakes in Vietnam and in Iraq. We must recognize what a large and growing number of Iraqis now believe the war in Iraq has become a war against the American occupation.

Andrew Sullivan, too, was spooked by a Lawrence Kaplan article in TNR (subscriber firewall), for which Mickey Kaus ridicules him. The Economist headline grimly reads "Democracy at gunpoint." Sullivan, TNR, and The Economist were prominent war supporters. Why this disillusionment with the dream just as it is coming to fruition?

There is a lesson here, I think, about the flow of history, and the way that even in the best of times, progress is juxtaposed on the tragic thread in the human condition. History is the story of dreams coming to Earth, with the image meant in two senses: first, that dreams become realities, that what was once only imagined, visible to the mind's eye, becomes fact, visible to the body's eye; second, that dreams crash to the ground, and are dirtied and bent out of shape in the process, so that the former dreamers may come to disdain them. Just as we have gotten used to factories, mass-transit systems, flight, vacuum cleaners, electricity and indoor heating, the disappearance of slavery, civil equality, the emancipation of women, and so much else, so we have already gotten used to the idea of elections in Iraq. If we could have fast-forwarded time from March 2003 to the present, and watched Iraqis voting for the first time, the world would have been amazed. By now, we have already come to expect them. And, of course, there are the costs. While Hamilton's Pamphlets blows to smithereens the notion that Iraq is another Vietnam (basic differences: in Vietnam we failed with 50,000+ casualties; in Iraq we succeeded-- the goal of the war was regime change, don't forget-- at a cost of less than 1500 casualties), the way the casualties have been presented to us, covered incident by incident on a constant basis for a year and a half, in a way that the victims of the mass graves never were, gives the statistically challenged (that is, most people) a very inflated notion of their importance. Psychologically, "Iraqi elections" become bound up with blood and beheadings and fear. Elections are good, but bloodshed is bad. Can the two go together? The mind becomes confused.

StrategyPage always does a great job of describing the situation on the ground:

For the last month, the population of Fallujah has been allowed back into their city. The government has a division (eight battalions) of troops and police in Fallujah, along with a regiment of American marines. Nearly 200,000 civilians are back in Fallujah. Anti-government fighters have been almost completely removed from the town...

The anti-government and terrorist gangs are under increasingly more effective attack. This is a war you don't see, as both sides have good reason to keep their operations secret. One not-so-secret part of the war is the role of the Sunni Arab media. The newspapers, radio and television broadcasts are still very pro-terrorist, although these killers are rarely called that. The Sunni Arab media describes them as "insurgents" and "resistance fighters." The European media likes to pick up on this as well, which helps recruiting terrorists among the millions of Sunni Moslems living in Europe...

It’s the economy, stupid. Iraqis are less concerned about democracy, than in making a living... When Saddam was thrown out of power in 2003, the economy began to revive...

For over two decades, the main purpose of the Iraqi economy was keeping Saddam in power.

The coalition authority immediately eliminated all of Saddam’s economic restrictions and made it easy to invest in Iraq. This worked in the Shia Arab areas, and was already working in the Kurdish north. But in the center, many Sunni Arabs, especially those who had recently lost their government jobs, were angry at having lost control of the economy, and the country...

After a year, it was obvious that the Shia Arabs and Kurds, because of reconstruction, and the absence of Saddam’s thugs and bureaucrats, were prospering, and the Sunni Arabs were not. But to speak out against the Baath Party and al Qaeda terrorists could be fatal. Sunni Arabs who went to work for the government or coalition were threatened, and sometimes killed. Sunni Arabs kept joining and working. The Iraqi economy was booming, but you needed a job to take advantage of it...

The Shia Arab majority in Iraq feels pretty invincible at the moment, and the Sunni Arabs fear that this invincibility will become a reality this year.

But if the reality is messy, the Iraqis have not forgotten what a great step forward is being made. Belmont Club has a great post in which he links to an interview with a Christian bishop who is impressed by the changes that have taken place. I'm always impressed by the tone of these Iraqis. Maybe this is something that no one who has not spent 35 years under Saddam's tyranny can ever understand. One day the dream will come to earth for them, too, and democracy will be mundane. But not yet. Meanwhile, the elections ought to wake some Westerners up to the way we have become prematurely disillusioned. Wretchard calls for Kennedy to be held accountable if proven wrong. Kennedy is far from being the only one.

I'd say the neocons have a right to crow a bit. Their dream was castigated, maligned, defamed, scorned, their names were denounced throughout the earth... and yet, despite all the chatter, the elections are taking place in Iraq. And certain questions that were asked rhetorically, with a sneer-- for example, "Can democracy be imposed?"-- will have to be asked again, this time with true curiosity, and a critical examination of the evidence. The old conventional wisdom was that

...the White House will be gravely disappointed with the result of its effort to establish a stable liberal democracy in Iraq, or any other nation home to a large population of Muslims or Arabs, at least in the short to medium term.

It is still possible that that verdict will be proven correct. But in two days, upwards of ten million Iraqis will be challenging it.


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