A convention of Democrats who still support the Iraq war could be held, if not in a phone booth, then in a medium-sized walk-in closet.
The argument among congressional Democrats now is just how fast to withdraw the troops. Even many Republicans have turned against President Bush's vision of a peaceful, democratic Iraq, seeing it as a pipe dream. The war is unpopular.
But "unpopular" is not necessarily "wrong." A majority can be mistaken. I ask open-minded people to consider the following points:
The war against Islamism is the single most important issue of our generation. Islamism, also called radical Islam, political Islam, militant Islam or Islamofascism (not Islam itself) is the most malevolent and dangerous political force in the world today. While there isn't yet a generally accepted definition, "Islamism" can be taken to mean a conservative, illiberal reading of Islam, with the desire to impose an Islamist state by force both on other Muslims and on non-Muslims.
As Paul Berman shows in his book Terror and Liberalism, Islamism has two parents: Islam and European fascism. Islamism shares with fascism a fascination with nihilistic mass slaughter. The enemy, one's own people -- it hardly matters. For example, Ali Benhadj, a leader of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, said: "If a faith, a belief, is not watered and irrigated with blood, it does not grow. It does not live. Principles are reinforced by sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah. Faith is propagated by counting up deaths every day, by adding massacres and charnel-houses."
During the Iraq-Iran War, the mullahs sent waves of Iranian children into battle as human mine sweepers. Palestinian schools teach that a child's loftiest ambition should be to become a suicide-murderer. Iran is on its way to creating a nuclear arsenal, which it has threatened to use against Israel. Islamists are very open about their desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction in order to kill thousands, if not millions, of Americans and Jews. Only the most suicidally naive would assume that they don't mean what they say.
While some Islamists focus on the "liberation" of "Palestine" (i.e., the destruction of Israel), this is merely the first act of their proposed drama. World domination is the goal of the Islamists, cartoonish as that may sound. They view any land conquered by Muslims at any time in history as an Islamic "waqf" (trust), forever Muslim. Thus, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member Yusuf Qawadari issued a fatwa in December 2002, calling on Muslims to reconquer al-Andalus (Spain), the Balkans and southern Italy.
Islamists regard liberal democracy, along with all other non-Islamist philosophies, as illegitimate. They speak openly about replacing the constitutions of the Western democracies with sharia (Islamic law). During the "cartoon intifada" over the Danish caricatures of Muhammad, Islamists marched in London and elsewhere under banners that read, "Freedom go to Hell," "Behead those who insult Islam," and "Be prepared for the real Holocaust."
The threat of Islamism is not marginal or insignificant. There are an estimated 1 billion Muslims throughout the world. Even if only 1 percent of them were committed Islamists (an exceptionally low estimate), that would mean 10 million Islamists willing to use violence to convert Dar es Harb (the realm of war, i.e., us) to Dar es Islam (the realm of Islam).
Nor is the Islamist program simply reactive. It does not depend on particular American or Israeli policies, nor will it disappear should America abandon the Middle East or Israel be destroyed, God forbid. Appeasement is impossible.
This is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between civilization and barbarism. Every liberal should be on the side of civilization. It's a puzzle that many self-styled liberals and progressives seem indifferent to Islamism, an ideology so hostile to liberal values. No liberal would want to live in a society where people accused of sorcery or homosexuality are subject to the death penalty, as in Saudi Arabia. No liberal would want to live in a society where women accused of adultery -- actually rape victims, in some cases -- are stoned to death, as in Iran. Liberals ought to embrace the war against Islamism with the same seriousness of purpose we displayed in the war against fascism.
Supporting liberal democracy in the Muslim world is the surest long-term defense against Islamism. Islamist terrorists today enjoy the material and moral support of many Islamist and Muslim states. Without such support, Islamists' freedom of action would be severely impeded, rendering them far less dangerous. Moreover, a person is influenced by his environment. An Islamist society is more likely to produce Islamists; a liberal society, less so. Liberal democracies historically are not dangerous to one another.
Consequently, our policy must distinguish between Muslims and Islamists, and support voices of liberal democracy in the Muslim world. American aid and favorable relations with Muslim countries should be conditioned on steady progress toward liberal democracy. President Bush has adopted this position rhetorically, but has not implemented it consistently.
Some explicitly or implicitly claim that Muslims by culture or history are incapable of becoming democrats. This would be racist, if race were the relevant category. Natan Sharansky notes in "The Case for Democracy" that among the nations formerly seen as unsuited for democracy are Japan, Germany and Italy -- all robust democracies today.
There are already Muslim democracies, such as Turkey. There is movement toward democracy in some Arab countries, such as Kuwait's decision in 2005 to give Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run for office. Such progress must be encouraged, not simply because as liberal democrats we want others to enjoy the same freedoms. It is also a matter of our national security.
The war to liberate Iraq is a battle in the larger war against Islamism. The argument that Saddam was a secular Baathist, and therefore could not have had anything to do with Islamism, is unsophisticated. It's rather like claiming that there never actually was a Hitler-Stalin pact, since Nazis and Communists hated each other and could have no common interests.
The facts are that Saddam's financial support for the families of Hamas suicide-murderers is well known. Investigators in Iraq recently translated documents revealing that Saddam used money from the United Nations' oil-for-food program to fund the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Abu Abbas, the murderer of American Leon Klinghoffer, was living peacefully in Baghdad until American forces captured him in 2003.
Even the often-repeated assertion that Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaida is not correct -- or at least, is premature. It ignores, for example, the 9-11 Commission, which noted that two al-Qaida members reportedly met with Iraqi intelligence in March 1998, and that an Iraqi delegation went to Afghanistan to meet bin Laden in July 1998. Until the Iraqi archives are fully explored, truthful people will reserve judgment on the nature of the relationship between Saddam and bin Laden.
All these relationships with Islamists have been disrupted by the liberation of Iraq. If we succeed in helping Iraq toward a future of liberal democracy, the Islamists will have been robbed of an important state sponsor.
Liberating Iraq was justified. The Bush administration relied heavily on the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to support its ultimatum and invasion. But failure to find WMD does not mean that the war was retrospectively illegitimate.
After all, it's a fact that Saddam had chemical weapons at one time: he used them against the Iranians and against the Kurds in the 1980s. It's a fact that Israel thwarted his goal of becoming a nuclear power by bombing the Osirak reactor in 1981. It's a fact that he impeded the WMD inspectors after the first Gulf War. It's a fact that the infrastructure remained in place for the resumption of WMD development after the end of sanctions. It's a fact that the available intelligence was not definitive. The question thus isn't, "Were there in fact Iraqi WMD at the beginning of the war?" but rather, "Did Bush act reasonably?"
The claim that "Bush lied us into a war" is dishonest. It suggests that Bush knew that the search for WMD would come up empty, invaded anyway, and was wrong to do so. It would be more truthful to say that he believed Saddam was harboring WMD; that he wasn't alone in believing it; that there was good reason to believe it; and that, given the nature of WMD and of Islamists, it was prudent to resolve any doubt as he did.
Moreover, WMD were not the only justification for the war. Saddam was a monstrous tyrant, awash in blood, dangerous to his neighbors and his own people. And, as noted above, supporting liberalization in the Arab world should be a primary foreign policy objective. These considerations, too, justify the liberation of Iraq.
Critics raise the question: Why Iraq? Why not Iran, or Syria, or even Saudi Arabia? Frankly, after Sept. 11 there were a lot of valid targets in the Middle East. Since one can't do everything at once, one has to start somewhere. Since any choice could be criticized ex post facto as the wrong choice, one suspects that the criticism may be a veiled counsel to do nothing.
Bush's bungling of Iraq strategy does not invalidate the premises of the war. The above analysis is not refuted by the current situation in Iraq, because incompetent execution of a policy logically cannot invalidate that policy.
There has never been an error-free military campaign. Moreover, any risky policy is likely to be regarded as brilliant -- if it works; or idiotic -- if it fails.
Still, while "Bush lied" is doubtful, "Bush blundered" is undeniable.
The principal mistake has been that Bush never committed enough troops to simultaneously combat insurgents and jihadists, provide security to Iraqis, control the borders, and train the Iraqi military and police. The continuing emphasis has been on the "light footprint," even as it became clear that it wasn't working.
In addition, notwithstanding Bush's "stay the course" rhetoric, our posture in Iraq has always been poised to head for the exits. Almost from the moment we liberated Iraq, we regularly announced troop reductions that had to be hastily cancelled in the face of stepped-up violence. This does nothing but encourage our enemies to believe we lack the will to outlast them.
However, the theory of Muslim democratization has not been disproved in Iraq, because Bush never properly tried it. He seems to have imagined that instant elections would result in overnight democracy. In fact, elections should come as the culmination, not the starting point, of the process of liberalization. An efficient and non-corrupt police force, an independent judiciary, and a commitment to politics instead of violence -- these are among the prerequisites for liberal democracy. By short-changing this difficult evolution, Bush set the stage for illiberal forces to endanger Iraqi democracy.
Still, the need to confront Islamism, the propriety of promoting Muslim liberalization, the desirability of overthrowing Saddam -- these haven't changed, however badly the war has been executed up to now.
We have not been defeated in Iraq. We are unlikely to be defeated, unless we give up. Until recently, Bush has been unable or unwilling to learn from his mistakes -- the deadliest error of all. Finally, this is changing. The troop escalation, combined with a new strategy for using them, may turn the tide.
Or maybe not. If it doesn't work, we'll have to try something else. America surely has the resources, and the resourcefulness, to sustain the nascent Iraqi democracy and defeat its foes.
But nurturing a democratic transformation is not the work of a day, or a year, or perhaps even a decade. Our own democracy took many generations to mature, and remains imperfect. We must take the long view in the Middle East. Our enemies do.
Whatever happens in Iraq, the war against Islamism will continue. We must win. Many seem to believe that if we abandon Iraq, our lives will be tranquil again. (No one dares to suggest the same for the abandoned Iraqis.) They are mistaken.
If we flee Iraq, our own security will worsen. Islamists will be emboldened, concluding that we don't have the stomach for this long-term conflict. They will attract more recruits, since fence-sitters always prefer the winning side.
If Iraq falls to the Islamists, it will prove once more how foolish anyone would be to depend on the United States for support and protection. Muslims trying to create humane societies and even friendly Middle Eastern dictators will draw demoralizing conclusions, further strengthening the Islamists.
This does not mean inevitable defeat. But we face a long period of struggle, in which victory is not assured. Hitler prevailed for a time; he might have won. Dark ages happen.
Our ultimate victory over Islamism will be easier if we win this battle in Iraq.
Paul Kujawsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee.
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