The Fate of Democracy In Iraq

Reuters has the latest from Baghdad, where Prime Minister Maliki is trying to hang on to power in the wake of the appointment of a new Prime Minister by President Fouad Masoum. I am not an expert on the Iraqi constitution, but I take it that Maliki–whose term in office has been increasingly disastrous for Iraq, as he has been seen as a sectarian and to a large extent a tool of Iran–is in the wrong, legally. President Obama’s statement on the crisis is here, and, while I think he has made some terrible mistakes in Iraq, I can find no fault with it.

The current impasse raises questions about the future of Iraqi democracy. President Obama’s pronouncement that Iraq is a secure and stable democracy, and therefore it was safe to withdraw the last of our troops, was obviously premature. Still, my guess is that self-government in Iraq will survive this crisis, and perhaps thrive in the years to come.

This brings us back to 2003, when the U.S. led an international coalition to topple Saddam Hussein and lay the foundation for Iraqi self-rule. I supported the effort, mostly on the ground that we needed to find a long-term solution to the problem of Islamic terrorism. How could we, over time, change the Arab states so that they will not endlessly breed violent, disaffected young men who are ripe for radical political action? One theory was that the dysfunction of Arab governments was an important contributor to the social and political pathologies that gave rise to terrorism. Perhaps if Arab governments became democratic, young people might turn their energies in a more constructive direction and over time, political liberalization might lead to cultural reform. President Bush articulated this objective in a series of excellent speeches.

Where might one try that approach, and attempt to determine whether Arab countries can be brought into the modern world? The obvious answer was Iraq. Many of us hoped that a successful democracy in Iraq, combined with economic liberalization, could make that country an example for other Islamic states. Was it a long shot? Perhaps. But what was the alternative? The only purported long-term solution on offer from the left was to abandon Israel, as though our alliance with that state, or its existence, were the reason for Islamic terrorism.

So bringing democracy to Iraq was worth a shot. In my view, it had to be tried. If that is correct, overthrowing Saddam and giving the Iraqis a chance to establish a democracy wasn’t a mistake, even if the effort failed.

But it hasn’t failed yet. The Iraqis have shown considerable resilience and commitment, and it is reasonable to hope that they will not only survive the present crisis but will create the stable and secure democracy that President Obama prematurely attributed to them. What effect that will have on the rest of the Muslim world remains to be seen, of course. The disaster of the “Arab spring” has given support to those–I think Scott would put himself in this category–who think that in the present state of Islamic culture, popular rule will make things worse, not better. They may prove to be right in the end. For now, it seems to me, the wheel is still in spin, in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

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