March 10, 2005
Iraq Election May Mark Start of Change
The day after the elections in Iraq, the London Independent commented that "in the long term, it is possible that yesterday's elections in Iraq may be seen as marking the start of a great change across the whole region."
The editors hastened to add that it would be "utterly wrong for President Bush or the prime minister to claim that Iraq's elections vindicate their invasion." But the first statement was the more striking, both because this antiwar, anti-Bush paper said it and because it is so undeniably true.
Set aside for the moment Bush's recent speeches, and all the doctrinal debates they have spurred, and simply focus on what has actually happened in the real world over the past year.
First, there were the elections in Afghanistan last October. Despite predictions of disaster, 8 million Afghanis voted for the first time in their war-savaged lives.
Then in December, came the crisis and democratic triumph in Ukraine. Elections stolen by a corrupt Ukrainian government with the connivance of Russia's authoritarian ruler, Vladimir Putin, were reversed by a massive display of "people power" in the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.
A new round of elections brought tens of millions of Ukrainians out to vote -- roughly three-quarters of registered voters -- in what will go down in history as the "Orange Revolution."
Then in January, the Palestinian people held elections for a new prime minister, the first such elections in nine years. There, too, turnout was huge, and the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas received an overwhelming majority of the votes.
The elections, in turn, have produced real progress in the peace process. Israel has begun withdrawing from West Bank towns, as well as from the Gaza strip, and has also released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Abbas appears to be taking serious steps toward ending Palestinian attacks on Israel.
Some may recall that Bush had all along insisted that there could be no progress toward peace so long as Yasser Arafat remained in power, and that any progress would come as a result of new, democratic elections in Palestine.
The President was pilloried in Europe and by some in the United States for holding to that position over the past two years. Now it appears he has been proven right.
Finally, there were the elections in Iraq. It is worth contemplating whether, as the Independent suggested, the Iraq elections may mark "the start of a great change across the whole region."
Not so long ago, indeed right up until the day of the elections, this kind of thinking was treated as delusional, even dangerously delusional.
The global foreign-policy establishment ridiculed the notion that "democracy" should be America's goal in Iraq, not to mention across the broader Middle East and Muslim world. The community of democracy "experts" cluck-clucked at such "childish fantasies."
Even as millions of Iraqis were casting their votes, we were being told that their votes were essentially meaningless or worse. The "wrong" people would be elected, because the Iraqis are not decent enough, "liberal" enough to elect the right people.
Bush sometimes is accused of arrogance, but the true and appalling arrogance is telling the Iraqi people that they are not electing the right kind of people. Are we so afraid of letting the Shi'a, who make up more than 60 percent of the Iraqi population, or the Kurds, who make up another 20 percent, win their fair share of votes in a free election?
Thankfully, Bush never accepted the perverse and immoral notion that Iraqis or any other Arab or Muslim people are not "ready" for democracy. As a result, millions of Iraqis and Afghans have now voted.
How will the Iraqi elections affect the rest of the Arab world?
Probably a great deal. And the chances increase every time Bush singles out Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria for special mention. Words do matter, and especially against the backdrop of deeds in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The next round of elections will occur in Lebanon this summer, where an opposition victory could spell the beginning of the end to Syria's genuinely imperial role in that country. As for the others, you don't have to take Bush's word for it. Jordan's King Abdullah put it best: "People are waking up. [Arab] leaders understand that they have to push reform forward, and I don't think there is any looking back."
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Standard.
Currently based in Brussels, Robert Kagan writes extensively on U.S. strategy and diplomacy in the post-Cold War era. Kagan is also a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the New Republic and a monthly columnist for The Washington Post.