March 30, 2010
Verdict a long way off on Iraq
The recent elections in Iraq, the fifth since the 2003 invasion by the United States and its allies, have generated predictable polemics. Some commentators, almost exclusively those who originally supported the invasion, see the vote as a triumph for democracy that retroactively vindicates the Bush administration’s decision to go to war Mission Accomplished at last. Thus, in a Wall Street Journal column on the eve of the vote, investment banker and former journalist Bartle Bull asserted that if the election turned out to be free and fair, arguments against the war in Iraq would be consigned forever to the graves they deserve. The war’s critics scoff at such talk as deluded, countering that even if the election is a genuinely positive outcome, it does not justify the false pretexts under which the war was launched, the human toll on both sides, or the other costs including destabilization in the region. Each side, in other words, argues that history’s verdict is in its favor: What a surprise.
In fact, we are a long way off from a verdict, and claims of either victory or defeat are dangerously premature.
There are real causes for cautious optimism. Certainly, Iraq today has far more stability than it did in 2005, during the country’s last national election, and far more freedom than it did in 2002 under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. For people who spent most of their lives under that brutal regime, the simple opportunity to cast a vote in a real, free election as 62 percent of eligible Iraqi voters did on March 7 is no small thing. Yet it is a well-known fact that free elections as such are no guarantee of a free society; few of the pundits who are celebrating the vote in Iraq as a victory for liberty and decency would say the same of the 2006 vote on Palestinian territories that put Hamas in power.
Moreover, a few days after Iraqis went to the polls, a somewhat darker picture emerges than suggested by initial reports. The U.S. military, which at first downplayed the scope of violence on election day, now confirms more than 130 terror attacks nationwide, claiming the lives of at least 37 people. What’s more, the closely divided vote heralds political turmoil, complete with claims of ballot fraud, that have the potential to weaken the government and perhaps spill over into street unrest. As a report in Time magazine notes, the underlying ethnic and sectarian conflicts over power and resources are unresolved as well and may well remain unresolved after the U.S. forces leave. According to Time, the security situation could plummet precipitously.
There is the added problem of Iran’s role in the region. In his Wall Street Journal column, Bull dismisses fears that a Shiite-dominated Iraq would be too susceptible to Iranian influence on the grounds that Iranian and Iraqi Shiites are divided by ethnic and cultural differences. (In a rather dramatic stretch, he also claims that Shiite Islam — only the Iraqi version, perhaps? — has powerful affinities with Western humanism.) Yet Time notes that the post-Saddam Iraqi governments have all been friendly to Iran. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on Feb. 25 that Iran was conducting a massive covert effort to influence the voting in Iraq.
For all these drawbacks, the fact remains that the fall of a murderous tyranny that held a nation of 30 million under its boot is a positive good. In polls over the past seven years, close to half of Iraqis — as many as 60 percent in some years, just over 40 percent in others — have said that the 2003 invasion was right. Considering the amount of death, suffering, chaos and economic misery that the war and the insurrection have inflicted on the populace, and considering the plain fact that no one likes their country invaded and occupied (particularly by a nation with a very different culture and a different religion), these figures offer some understanding of just how intolerable the prewar status quo really was. That is something frequently forgotten by the Michael Moores of this world, who seem to blithely assume that the hardships in Iraq began with the invasion.
There are many on the left, and some in the more libertarian and paleoconservative segments of the right, who would be loath to acknowledge any success in the movement toward a democratic society in Iraq. Some because they refuse to believe that the exercise of American power abroad can lead to something positive or that democracy cannot be brought to a country by military intervention (even if the past examples of Germany and Japan suggest that it can). Some because they cannot stand the idea that the West can, by whatever means, offer non-Western countries a positive social and political model to live by even if, a year ago, two-thirds of Iraqis in a major poll supported democracy as the best form of government for Iraq.
Such attitudes of rooting for Western failure do exist. On the other side, they lead to the suspicion that all reporting of bad news about Iraq is tainted by the desire to see the worst. That is clearly not the case; the bad news is all too real, and wishful thinking is no more helpful than willful blindness to good news.
Could Iraqi democracy be a success story someday — and even, as both conservative and liberal interventionists have hoped, a model of democratic development for the Muslim world? It could — though, given the costs of victory, we-told-you-sos may not be the best response even in that scenario. Whatever history’s eventual verdict, some humility in the face of it would be appropriate from both sides.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”