Revising Settled Judgments

Published February 5, 2009

Commentary Web Exclusive

In the wake of Iraq's recent provincial elections, it is instructive to consider how many once-settled judgments now have to be significantly, and in some cases fundamentally, revised.

Perhaps most important is the one declaring that the effort to spread liberty to the Arab Middle East was a fool's errand, that the cultural soil of Iraq was too hard and forbidding for democracy to take root, and that elections would only strengthen religious radicals and deepen sectarian differences. In fact, freedom is taking root in Iraq. We are seeing the enfranchising of Sunni Arabs. And though the journey hasn't been easy, Iraq is today a legitimate, representative, and responsible democracy.

In addition, the fears that democracy would lead to a radical, illiberal theocratic rule have not been realized. Secular and moderately religious parties (like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party) did well; sectarian parties (like the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) did not. Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric once thought to be an increasingly influential figure in Iraq's future, has seen his power and influence diminish. And the secular Iraqi National List, led by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, made gains.

A third judgment that needs to be revised is that Iraq is an artificial state whose citizens are bound together by tribal and sectarian allegiances rather than by national identity. It would be silly to pretend tribal ties don't exist in places like Anbar, where Sunni sheiks gave rise to the “Anbar Awakening” that decimated al Qaeda. Still, last weekend's elections were, in the main, a vote for a strong central state, one that keeps the country together against those seeking to fracture it. We are witnessing a revival of, not the death of, Iraqi nationalism.

Those who said Prime Minister Maliki was a hapless figure and a stooge of Iran unable to lead Iraq were also proven wrong. Maliki, who took real risks last year in going after Iranian-backed Shiite militia, was rewarded for his success. Politicians allied with Maliki posted large gains in Baghdad and southern Iraq (the Shiite heartland).

And those who for years have insisted that the real victor in the Iraq war would be Iran, which would increase its influence over Iraq and its politics, have also been shown to be mistaken. Candidates and parties that were viewed as closely aligned with Iran did quite poorly. Of course, those who believed Iraq would become an appendage of Iran didn't understand Iraq or its history very well to begin with.

A final judgment that has been demolished is that the so-called surge would fail. Virtually the entire foreign policy establishment, as well as almost the entire political class (including Barack Obama), fiercely opposed President Bush's decision in January 2007. Yet the new counterinsurgency strategy not only succeeded; it made everything else that is good in Iraq possible. Security was the sine qua non for political progress and reconciliation.

Iraq remains a scarred and fragile nation, on the mend but not yet fully healed. Elections are not an elixir, and divisions remain. In Anbar Province, for example, there are tensions over allegations of election fraud. Recently we have seen tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. And the status of Kirkuk, Iraq's biggest oil-producing city, remains unresolved. Life in Iraq is not yet a day at the beach.

Nevertheless, what is unfolding in Iraq is an unprecedented and hopeful moment in the Arab world. The political culture of Iraq, the second most important nation in the Arab Middle East, is being transformed; over time, it may well shape the political culture of the rest of the region.

Nothing is foreordained, and the progress we have made could still be lost. But we can say this: the war that started with such high expectations and then went so badly off track is now winding down on a note of hope. America may well accomplish what it initially hoped to — a free, self-governing, peaceful Iraq that is an ally of America and an enemy of militant Islam — though at a higher cost than necessary. And those who, during the darkest days of the war, concluded that Iraq wasn't any longer worth America's effort and commitment to champion freedom, have to rethink their judgments.

To be fair, Iraq has caused most of us to rethink, or at least refine, certain assumptions we held. Everyone was wrong about something when it came to Iraq and the war. The best we can do is learn from, and build on, those experiences — an approach which is both deeply conservative and the way to wisdom.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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