06/08/2007 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democracy in Iraq: Fantasy and Reality

Three items of interest today, two from the radical far-right journal The National Review, one from real life.

Over at National Review, John Derbyshire -- an occasional voice of reason at that depressing haven for social fantasy of all kinds -- observes, "The exchanges about the Senate's new immigration bill have made it plainer than ever that a big chunk of our political elites, including our president, seek to win arguments by assertions of moral status. That is, their killer argument is not: 'I am right because A, B, and C. You are wrong because X, Y, and Z.' It is more like: 'I am right because I am noble and have high motives. You are wrong because you are base and have low motives.'" Derbyshire is entirely correct about this, although one does wonder why he didn't notice earlier. He should check out Ben Schwartz's riposte to Peggy Noonan on The Huffington Post, "Peggy Noonan Sees How The Other 72% Lives."

Let's go from Derbyshire to Victor Davis Hanson, the classical scholar and military historian who knows a great deal and understands very little. Throughout his writing on the war on terror, and there has been a lot of it, Hanson has made a fine art of setting up a class of straw men: Americans who don't understand the terrorist threat and don't want to fight for freedom. Here he's at the top of his game:

"The establishment of consensual government in Iraq, with the concomitant defeat of jihadists, will have positive ripples that will undermine Islamism and help to cleanse the miasma in which al Qaeda thrives... Because the al Qaedists steal many of their talking points from the Western Left does not make them unimaginative as much as eerily familiar... Either stabilizing Iraq now is felt critical to the United States and the West or it isn't. If the Left is right that it isn't, then we should flee; if they are wrong, and I think they are, then we must start using our vast cultural and media resources to explain what is at stake..."


Where does Hanson get off implying that "the Left" (as if there is such a distinct entity, but I think he means here anyone who criticizes the government's conduct of the war) doesn't value or appreciate "the establishment of consensual government in Iraq, with the concomitant defeat of the terrorists"? I don't know a single person on the left who wouldn't support that and wouldn't think it a good thing - if it had actually happened, and if the Bush Administration's policies had any chance of making it happen.

How dare Hanson write that "the al Qaedists steal many of their talking points from the Western Left"? If he's going to say something that outrageous, he'd better be able to back it up. In what possible sense does the Western Left share the talking points (and by implication, the values and goals) of al Qaeda? I keep pretty well abreast of left and liberal thought, and I've never ever heard anyone say that fundamentalist religion - of any stripe - is a good thing, that freedom of speech is bad, that democracy is a spiritually corrupting condition, that we should be ruled by Shari'a law, that women must wear the burka and be denied education, that the hope of the world lies in the restoration of the medieval Caliphate, or that using reason as a tool for understanding the world is a decadent habit. Radical Islam is -- in every way -- the opposite of democratic and liberal thought and tradition (I make no claims for the anti-democratic left, those who admire Castro and Kim Il Sung; but these despicable fools are such a tiny part of the political scene that it would be thoroughly dishonest of Hanson to use them as any kind of representative example.)

And I don't know a single person on the left who would not agree that stabilizing Iraq now is critical to the United States and the West. And this is precisely the nature of our argument with Bush and his fellow fantasists like Hanson. The anti-war argument from responsible, democratic leftist quarters was never about the benefits of stabilizing and democratizing Iraq. It was about faith in the ability of this president, who started a war out of personal vanity, to get the job done. It was about the potential for increasing human freedom of a war that was sold to the public with lies. It was about the democratic seriousness of an administration that tried to run the occupation with far too few troops and with corrupt, incompetent, politically-connected cronies. It was about skepticism that a group of people who behaved anti-democratically at home (including stealing the 2000 election) had any credibility at all when they spoke about democracy abroad. It was about suspicion of the administration's massive hidden agenda in Iraq, an agenda that has little to do with advancing human freedom (although I, unlike some others, do not discount the sincerity of the administration's desire to see freedom take root in Iraq. Among other things, such as permanent US military bases.)

Above all it was about whether a group of people who had absolutely no interest in the lessons of history (how many of Bush's inner circle have even heard of General Maude or the Mesopotamian Revolt?) nor in the sociology of power in Iraq could, in any real-world scenario, do anything but massive damage. It was about whether a silly little boy from a privileged family who said in 2003 - and who repeated the main idea just the other day in Prague, when he really had no excuse - that:

"the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same... For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror."

One wonders what the strategic realists of the Republican Party -- Brent Scowcroft, James A. Baker, Richard Lugar, George Shultz, George W. Bush's own father -- make of this statement, and its reiteration in 2007. Not that "realism" is any guarantee that one won't do terrible and stupid things; the abandonment of the Kurds and the Shi'a in 1991 was an act of brutal betrayal that set up an intractable conflict. But these men have some understanding of how the real world works, of what strategy is. And they understand the dangers of its opposite: sentimentality based on a parochial faith, its limitations matched by its conviction. "They'll greet us with flowers." "They want freedom." (And what does that word mean to them? Why, precisely the same thing it means to George W. Bush, the meaning he learned in his third-grade civics class and hasn't thought about since. Doesn't everyone in the world want that?)

Yet surely we have learned in the last few years that, indeed, there are plenty of people on earth who most assuredly do not want the "same good things" as we Western small-l liberal, small-d democrats do; that in fact many Iraqis want to create chaos and disorder, precisely so that they can remain the bullying and oppressing class. They are the products, after all, of a society that in modern times, and most especially in the last thirty years, has known little else, so this is not surprising, and could and should have been predicted (and was predicted) by many thoughtful liberals and thoughtful conservatives in this country prior to the war. But George W. Bush and his enablers prefer not to encounter that reality; hence, in a bit of unintended irony, they prefer to recite the hippie mantra: "We're all the same, man." This is harmless when recited over a bong in an undergraduate dorm room. As a basis for making foreign policy and war, decidedly less so.

The goal of stabilizing a democratic Iraq is a worthy and important one, and hardly anyone on left or right denies it. We're not going to get there through criminal naiveté, incompetence, and moral posturing, and Hanson merely confuses the issue by using the same sort of self-righteous diversion that Derbyshire decries.

And now the final item, dispatched from the real world. Here's an article in The New York Times about how the region's dictators have been using the trappings of democracy to enhance their own authoritarian regimes, and how the situation in Iraq has undermined even the minimal popular belief in real democracy. In this sense the War on Terror has presented a great opportunity for the despots of the region, who have discovered the sociopolitical value of meaningless elections, for themselves if not for their people. Some quotes:

"Iraq, where a freely elected government has been paralyzed by sectarian disputes, stands as a particularly damaging example. 'Democracy itself has lost credibility as a way of government," said a Western diplomat based in Algiers, speaking on condition of anonymity, following customary diplomatic protocol. "I think the Iraqi experiment, and the purple finger, didn't help anything. People now say this democracy is not the answer to anything.'... 'I voted because I was so excited -- finally I can pick the candidate I want,' said Hussein Marzouk, an Iraqi refugee living in Lebanon. 'But then I found out that I risked my life for nothing. It turned to be a phony game the Americans brought with them that was full of fraud. So why would I vote again?'"

So this is what Mr. Bush's incompetence has wrought; we, and our national interests, will be feeling the effects of this damage for some time to come. And this, not any reflexive enmity toward democracy and freedom in Iraq, is why the Left despises George W. Bush. If Mr. Hanson really wanted to see progress toward a democratic Iraq, he might look at the evidence and conclude that just about any leader other than Bush, any policy other than Bush's, might get us and the Iraqis there more quickly.