17 November 2006

Wanted: One Iraqi George Washington

Charles Krauthammer makes a profoundly troubling observation for those of us who wholeheartedly supported the liberation of Iraq: "We have given the Iraqis a republic, and they do not appear able to keep it." He continues:
In retrospect, I think we made several serious mistakes -- not shooting looters, not installing an Iraqi exile government right away, and not taking out Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army in its infancy in 2004 -- that greatly compromised the occupation. Nonetheless, the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture.

. . . .

[]Iraq's first truly democratic government turned out to be hopelessly feeble and fractured, little more than a collection of ministries handed over to various parties, militias and strongmen.

The problem is not, as we endlessly argue about, the number of American troops. Or of Iraqi troops. The problem is the allegiance of the Iraqi troops. Some serve the abstraction called Iraq. But many swear fealty to political parties, religious sects or militia leaders.

Are the Arabs intrinsically incapable of democracy, as the "realists" imply? True, there are political, historical, even religious reasons why Arabs are less prepared for democracy than, say, East Asians and Latin Americans who successfully democratized over the past several decades. But the problem here is Iraq's particular political culture, raped and ruined by 30 years of Hussein's totalitarianism.

While that's certainly depressing, Krauthammer goes on to describe a more hopeful possibility:
Is this America's fault? No. It is a result of Iraq's first democratic election. The United States was not going to replace Saddam Hussein with another tyrant. We were trying to plant democracy in the heart of the Middle East as the one conceivable antidote to extremism and terror -- and, in a country that is nearly two-thirds Shiite, that inevitably meant Shiite domination. It was never certain whether the long-oppressed Shiites would have enough sense of nation and sense of compromise to govern rather than rule. The answer is now clear: United in a dominating coalition, they do not.

. . . .

The unitary Shiite government having been proved such a failure, we should be encouraging the full breakup of the Shiite front in pursuit of a new coalition based on cross-sectarian alliances: the more moderate Shiite elements (secular and religious but excluding the poisonous Sadr), the Kurds and those Sunnis who recognize their minority status but are willing to accept an important, generously offered place at the table.

Such a coalition was almost created after the latest Iraqi elections. It needs to be attempted again. One can tinker with American tactics or troop levels from today until doomsday. But unless the Iraqis can put together a government of unitary purpose and resolute action, the simple objective of this war -- to leave behind a self-sustaining democratic government -- is not attainable.

We had our false start as well, remember. The Articles of Confederation were an acknowledged failure before the inadequacies of that arrangement were remedied in an enduring Constitution and Bill of Rights. Even with those documents in place and a national will to succeed, it still took the strength and dignity of George Washington to see the nation through its first few years. We survived those years only to fight a bloody civil war less than a century later; it required a civil rights movement a century after that to guarantee finally the rights of minority groups.

If a modern eye were turned to the fledgling American republic during the dozen years the Articles were effective (de facto or de jure between 1777 and 1789), would we have rated the prospects of the United States very highly? While post-Revolution America perhaps lacked the sectarian animosity of today's Iraq, it also did not have the backing of world's leading economic and military power -- indeed, it had just fought a war of independence from its era's leading economic and military power and would fight it again in 1812.

The Shiites may lack a George Washington, but they will have the active backing of the developed world beyond the Middle East if they nonetheless can find amongst their number some semblance of our nation's visionary founding fathers.

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