Ethics & Public Policy Center

Don't Blame Democracy

Published in Weekly Standard, Volume 013, Issue 10 on November 19, 2007



Two and a half years ago–in the wake of elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, and especially Iraq (as well as the fall of Lebanon's pro-Syrian government) — we were witness to what became known as the “Arab Spring.” Commentators were declaring President Bush's “freedom agenda” a success.

In February 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared the Iraqi election a “tipping point” in Middle East history. “[W]e're seeing the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall there,” Friedman said. Such unlikely voices as NPR's Daniel Schorr, the Washington Post's Jefferson Morley, and columnists in Der Spiegel and the Guardian were saying, explicitly or in essence, “Bush was right.”

Today the situation looks very different. The Freedom Agenda is being criticized from almost every quarter — and the main reason is Iraq. It is said that our efforts to plant democracy there have been a colossal failure. Iraq is fractured and fragmenting, violent, and politically paralyzed. Whereas exporting democracy was once considered a worthy endeavor, many people now fear it will usher in chaos. A bumper sticker puts it this way: Be Nice to Us, or We Will Bring Democracy to You.

But Iraq's problems are not the product of democracy, and they shouldn't be laid at the feet of liberty. In fact, the causes of Iraq's difficulties lie elsewhere.

For one thing, the Phase IV (post-major combat operations) plan was deeply flawed. After 35 years of Saddam Hussein's demonic rule, Iraq was a traumatized society. In many respects, it was non-functioning. The Bush administration (in which I served) did not sufficiently anticipate this. In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam, basic order was not provided. For too long there was an aversion among some in the administration to nation-building, even though we had taken on one of the great nation-building projects in history. We tried to hand over responsibility to the Iraqi Security Forces before they were ready. There was a reluctance to recognize the growing insurgency — and once we did, it took too long to put in place the right counterinsurgency strategy.

Fortunately President Bush, facing enormous political pressure to wind down the war, refused to give up on Iraq. Eventually he made wholesale changes, including embracing the idea of “the surge” earlier this year. Under the extraordinary leadership of General David Petraeus and his team, the right strategy has now been put in place. This year is turning out to be a much better year than 2006. Almost every meaningful security metric is improving. The task in Iraq remains difficult — but we now have a decent shot at a decent outcome.

Beyond that, al Qaeda made Iraq the central front in its jihadist campaign. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi — all non-Iraqis — pursued their strategy with cunning savagery; they successfully turned sectarian tensions into widespread sectarian violence. The presence of brutal foreign terrorists in that tortured land made a difficult situation far more challenging.

And then there is Syria — and especially Iran, which is training and financing militias, exporting weapons to Iraq, and inciting violence. Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, and it is earning that appellation every day in Iraq.

What happened, then, was that Iraqis emerge from decades of tyranny deeply scarred, only to be met by widespread disorder, foreign terrorists, and hostile neighbors. These factors, and not democracy, are what has made the Iraq undertaking so difficult. Tony Blair has rightly argued that if these elements had not been introduced, we would be facing a far more manageable situation.

Our efforts in Iraq did not catalyze, as George Will predicted in 2002, “a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies.” (Will added this, for good measure: “Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy.”)

Nor did elections drain the insurgency of its hatred and convince militias to exchange bullets for ballots. But because liberty hasn't solved all of Iraq's problems doesn't mean it is responsible for them. The most stirring moments we have seen in Iraq remain the elections, which produced a constitution and a legitimate (if quite weak and imperfect) government. Elections, as well as the painstaking work of building democratic institutions, remain the pathway to progress. Most Iraqis want their freedom, and many of them are fighting valiantly to preserve it.

In the aftermath of the heady days of 2005, James Q. Wilson cautioned that it takes a long time to convert a nation accustomed to authoritarian rule — and Saddam Hussein's regime was much worse than that — into one that embraces democratic rule. A rapid transition, he wrote, has never been possible, and ought not be expected. But that doesn't mean we should halt our effort to encourage the spread of liberty. Wilson pointed out that “no nation will aggressively dominate a region if its citizens can control its foreign policy through free and democratic elections.”

Nations once thought to be incapable of self-government have shown they are more than capable, even as their ways do not mirror our own. Indonesia is different from India, which in turn is different from South Korea, which in turn is different from Senegal, which in turn is different from Canada. Because Iraq has proven to be a very complicated and difficult undertaking, this does not subvert the democratic idea, any more than Germany's election in 1933, which brought Hitler to power, did. Bear in mind, too, that American democracy lived with slavery for almost a century, and it required a bloody civil war to end it. Moreover, the alternatives to freedom — whether authoritarianism, despotism, or anti-modernism — are hardly the cornerstones on which to build tranquility and prosperity. The Arab Middle East was a cauldron of violence and instability long before George W. Bush took office.

The United States helped midwife freedom in a land of tears. It was a noble undertaking, among the most noble in our history, and it is worth seeing through to completion.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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