Democrats and Iraq

Tom Friedman (rss), when he sticks to writing about the thing that established him as a top journalist, the Middle East, and restrains his penchant for silly man-on-the-street quotations and cute catchphrases, is worth reading. He does those things today, in a column wherein he urges Democrats who opposed the Iraq War to embrace the outcome and develop alternatives to Bush-Rumsfeld policies rather than reflexively criticizing them.

I think there is much to criticize about how the war in Iraq has been conducted, and the outcome is still uncertain. But those who suggest that the Iraqi election is just beanbag, and that all we are doing is making the war on terrorism worse as a result of Iraq, are speaking nonsense.

Here’s the truth: There is no single action we could undertake anywhere in the world to reduce the threat of terrorism that would have a bigger impact today than a decent outcome in Iraq. It is that important. And precisely because it is so important, it should not be left to Donald Rumsfeld.

Aside from the jibe at Rumsfeld–which he does not develop further–this is all true. Next, Friedman explains why Democrats should be excited about what has happened so far, optimistic about the future, and touches on how they could be effective change advocates instead of complainers. Mostly, though, he just reiterates that he thinks their view of the war is myopic.

He also explains why he advocates the Wilsonian idealist/neoconservative concept of the war:

Democrats do not favor using military force against Iran’s nuclear program or to compel regime change there. That is probably wise. But they don’t really have a diplomatic option. I’ve got one: Iraq. Iraq is our Iran policy.

If we can help produce a representative government in Iraq – based on free and fair elections and with a Shiite leadership that accepts minority rights and limits on clerical involvement in politics – it will exert great pressure on the ayatollah-dictators running Iran. In Iran’s sham “Islamic democracy,” only the mullahs decide who can run. Over time, Iranian Shiites will demand to know why they can’t have the same freedoms as their Iraqi cousins right next door. That will drive change in Iran. Just be patient.

The war on terrorism is a war of ideas. The greatest restraint on human behavior is not a police officer or a fence – it’s a community and a culture. Palestinian suicide bombing has stopped not because of the Israeli fence or because Palestinians are no longer “desperate.” It has stopped because the Palestinians had an election, and a majority voted to get behind a diplomatic approach. They told the violent minority that suicide bombing – for now – is shameful.

What Arabs and Muslims say about their terrorists is the only thing that will protect us in the long run. It takes a village, and the Iraqi election was the Iraqi village telling the violent minority that what it is doing is shameful. The fascist minority in Iraq is virulent, and some jihadists will stop at nothing. But the way you begin to drain the swamps of terrorism is when you create a democratic context for those with good ideas to denounce those with bad ones.

That remains the hope and was always, much more than the fear of Saddam’s nuclear weapons, the chief rationale for the war. It’s a huge gamble and one that I’ve always been skeptical of, even though I thought it worth the risks. Given the Iraqi election and the aftermath so far (including today’s mini-elections in Saudi Arabia), it certainly looks more likely to come true than it did a month ago.

I would also commend a longish essay by Donald Sensing which examines, in some detail, the leftist case against the Iraq War.

Update (1445): Over at TAPPED, Matt Yglesias wonders,

The presumption seems to be that the only thing standing between Iran and democracy is that the Iranian people don’t want a democracy. Further, they supposedly don’t want democracy because they aren’t aware that other people elsewhere live in democracies. If freedom blossoms in Iraq, then all that will change.

But Iranians aren’t idiots; they’re perfectly aware that others nations enjoy rights that they do not. They’ve also made it clear repeatedly since their 1997 election that they would very much like to see serious political reform in their country. The problem (as it so often is in these cases) is the small matter of the dictators and their control over the security services.

No doubt. The thinking, though, that seeing another Middle Eastern Muslim society, in this case a predominantly Shi’ite one, establish real democracy would be a more powerful example than other models. If nothing else, it would show that democracy and fealty to Islam are not mutually exclusive and that majority rule for Shi’a does not require the institution of Sharia.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. praktike says:

    Um, existing Iraqi personal status law is already based on Sharia to a certain extent, and in any case it’s what the victors have said they want to institute.