No Time To Go Wobbly

Peter Wehner, the director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives has an excellent rejoinder to the Cassandras of the right in regards to Iraq:

…[T]he critics of the Iraq war have chosen an odd time to criticize the appeal and power of democracy. After all, we are witnessing the swiftest advance of freedom in history. According to Freedom House’s director of research, Arch Puddington, “The global picture . . . suggests that 2005 was one of the most successful years for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972. . . . The ‘Freedom in the World 2006’ ratings for the Middle East represent the region’s best performance in the history of the survey.”

Mr. Will says it is time to “de-emphasize talk about Iraq’s becoming a democracy that ignites emulative transformation in the Middle East.” Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy activist from Egypt, says different. Mr. Ibrahim, who originally opposed the war to liberate Iraq, said it “has unfrozen the Middle East, just as Napoleon’s 1798 expedition did. Elections in Iraq force the theocrats and autocrats to put democracy on the agenda, even if only to fight against us.”

The critics of this war have accepted the common narrative that the violence in Iraq represents some kind of wide-scale rejectionism of liberal democracy. Yet there’s very little evidence that the Iraqis truly do feel that way. Polling has shown that Iraqis are still optimistic about their future, despite all the civil strife. No doubt the recent violence has shaken many Iraqis, but the notion that the problems centered around Baghdad represent the imminent collapse of Iraq isn’t all that realistic.

As I’ve said before, the road to democracy in Iraq will be a long and difficult one. Democratization is a game of inches, often going two steps forward then one-and-a-half steps back. Wehner makes a very cogent observation:

A mark of serious conservatism is a regard for the concreteness of human experience. If cultures are as intractable as Mr. Will asserts, and if an existing democratic culture was as indispensable as he insists, we would not have seen democracy take root in Japan after World War II, Southern Europe in the 1970s, Latin America and East Asia in the ’80s, and South Africa in the ’90s. It was believed by many that these nations’ and regions’ traditions and cultures–including by turns Confucianism, Catholicism, dictatorships, authoritarianism, apartheid, military juntas and oligarchies–made them incompatible with self-government.

This is not to say that culture is unimportant. It matters a great deal. But so do incentives and creeds and the power of ideas, which can profoundly shape culture. Culture is not mechanically deterministic–and to believe that what is will always be is a mistake of both history and philosophy.

Ultimately, the philosophical basis for democracy is based on enduring human principles. Democracy isn’t just a Western ideal, it’s the only system of government compatible with a successful and prosperous society. There is a direct and clear correlation between the success of a nation and the amount of freedom it offers its citizens. There are two ways of defeating terrorism in this war – killing anyone who dare oppose us, or fixing the culture that spawns and sustains it. The former is not only strategically foolish, but morally untenable. The only way we can win this war over the long term is to eradicate the basis of terrorism – and that basis is the lack of civil society in the Arab Middle East. The dominance of political Islam is a direct consequence of the lack of political freedom in the secular sphere. The autocracies of the Middle East could wipe away the democratic opposition, but they dared not attack Islam. It’s hardly unsurprising that political Islam would flourish in those conditions.

Restoring a sense of civil society in the region can reduce the appeal of political Islam and violent ideologies – but anyone who would argue that we would see that end achieved within the space of only three years is hopelessly naïve. This is a task that will take generations, and will continue long after the flashpoint of Iraq has simmered down. For the first time in decades, democratic change is on the table in the Middle East, and that is a significant sign of progress in itself. We can’t expect the Middle East to become democratic overnight – it took Turkey nearly 30 years from Kemal Atatürk’s reforms to the first peaceful transfer of political power in 1950. Expecting Iraq to go from abject autocracy to democracy in 36 months isn’t a reasonable goal.

This is a fragile time for the region. Trying to go back to the comfortable illusions of realpolitik will no longer work. The argument that spending decades playing a game of deadly Whack-A-Mole with al-Qaeda is equally unpalatable. The strategy of democratizing the Middle East will work – but only so long as we are willing to accept that it won’t happen on a politically expedient schedule.

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