Two cheers for democracy

Diana West, in an important column, questions whether President Bush is correct about the transformative powers of the democratic process. Noting the apparent success of the Shi’ite Muslim religious coalition in the recent Iraqi elections, as well as electoral developments in Egypt and among Palestinians, West disputes Bush’s claim that “the terrorists know that democracy is their enemy.”

West is correct that we should not consider democracy to be a short or mid-term panacea in the Middle East. And I agree that it’s unrealistic to believe that elections hold much promise of reducing Palestinian terror against Israel. Additionally, in the current environment we should not expect secular-style democracies to emerge from elections in the Middle East.

But that’s not to say that terrorists (Palestinian terrorists excepted) are wrong to view democracy as their enemey. Voting for an illiberal religious party is not the same as voting for terrorism. No population has any incentive to vote for those who would engage in domestic terrorism. And no population has much of an incentive to vote for those who would promote international terrorism, thereby risking sanctions or military retaliation.

West points out that the apparent winners in the Iraqi election have “alarmingly close ties to the terror masters of Iran.” Events may prove me wrong, but I don’t expect Iraqi Shi’ites to vote themselves into a close alliance with Iranian terror masters unless security concerns with respect to the Sunnis induce them to. That won’t happen if the U.S. is in the picture or if American-trained Iraqi security forces can do the job. Nor would I expect an Iraqi Shi’ite dominated government to ask the U.S. to leave, and then turn to the Iranians for protection against the Sunnis. Sistani and other Iraqi Shi’ite leaders seem clever enough to distrust the Iranians; nor, regardless of religion, can it be all that tempting for a dominant faction in one sovereign state to embrace a subservient role with respect to an aggressive neighboring state, if that faction has other options.

Democracy is certainly no guarantee against terrorism, and it would be an unwise anti-terrorism strategy to seize control of sovereign states for the purpose of promoting democracy. But having invaded Iraq for other reasons, it’s wise for us to promote democracy there for a number of reasons. One is that the promise of a democratic future is better than what the Iraqi terrorists are offering. Another is that a democratic Iraq poses less of a danger of future terrorism than a non-democratic Iraq.

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