Views on Arab Election

I want to highlight these two articles in the context of some current biased, short-sighted and politically-motivated information in the media and some think tanks.

"Happy Days!"

By Robert Kagan, William Kristol
The Weekly Standard, December 26, 2005

The purple ink on 11 million Iraqi fingers had not yet dried after an unprecedented, almost miraculous exercise in democratic freedom--and already there were querulous American critics working hard to make light of the whole thing. "Experts Cautious in Assessing Iraqi Election," ran the headline on a Friday Washington Post story by Robin Wright; "High Turnout, Low Violence a Positive Step, but Not a Turning Point, Analysts Say." And indeed, the indefatigable Ms. Wright had telephoned her usual cast of sour experts, each of whom was eager to help explain why, whatever else it might be, the peaceful election of a national assembly for a fully self-governing Arab democracy was Not a Turning Point. Elsewhere in the Post, former Clinton assistant secretary of state Susan Rice took the occasion of Iraq's elections to reject, with a bit of a sneer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assertion that democracy in Iraq serves American security interests.

Funny, isn't it? We seem to remember that the Clinton administration's declared foreign policy doctrine was something called "democratic enlargement." No longer operative, it seems. Will any leading Democrat, other than Joe Lieberman, bring himself to unambiguously celebrate this eruption of democracy in the heart of the Arab world?

In Iraq, just about everyone is celebrating. "Happy days!" cheered Salim Saleh to a New York Times reporter. "Before, we had a dictator, and now we have this freedom, this democracy," Emad Abdul Jabbar, a 38-year-old Sunni, told the Times. "This time, we have a real election, not just the sham elections we had under Saddam, and we Sunnis want to participate in the political process." "We are so happy," Sahera Hashim told the Financial Times. "We hope for security, good life. We have suffered too much in the past." The mayor of Ramadi, an insurgent and Sunni stronghold, compared the elections to a wedding: "Right now, the city is experiencing a democratic celebration." Another Sunni man told a Post reporter, "All my neighborhood is voting. God willing, after the elections things will be good."

The biggest story of this election, apart from its obvious milestone character, is the staggeringly high Sunni turnout. In October we were being assured, by the usual experts, that the passage of the constitutional referendum was a disaster, another of many final nails in the coffin of Iraqi democracy: The Sunnis would now never participate in the electoral process. It turns out that they did participate, and they did so with eager anticipation that through the new democratic process their voices could be heard and their interests protected.

It also turns out that one of the major reasons Sunnis had not participated before was fear that they would be killed by terrorists and insurgents. This time, with 160,000 American troops and thousands of newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police, there was a sense of security. "Last time, if you voted, you died," Abdul Jabbar Mahdi, a Sunni, told the Times's Dexter Filkins. "God willing, this election will lead to peace." As Filkins notes, "Comments from Sunni voters, though anecdotal, suggested that a good number of them had stayed away from the polls in January not because they were disenchanted with the democratic process, but because they were afraid of being killed."

Not a turning point? The participation of the Sunnis in such high numbers by itself marks this election as a watershed. Either something dramatic has happened to Sunni attitudes, or true Sunni feelings were previously suppressed. Among the Sunnis he interviewed, the Times's John Burns found "a new willingness to distance themselves from the insurgency, an absence of hostility for Americans, a casual contempt for Saddam Hussein, a yearning for Sunnis to find a place for themselves in the post-Hussein Iraq." Zaydan Khalif, 33, wrapped himself in the Iraqi flag as he headed to the polls. "It's the national feeling," he explained. According to the Los Angeles Times, in Sunni-dominated Falluja voters chanted "May God protect Iraq and Iraqis." The majority of Sunnis appear to have decided to cast votes rather than plant bombs. One Sunni man told a reporter, "We do not want violence and for others to say Sunnis are spearheading the violence in Iraq." Amer Fadhel Hassani, a Sunni resident of Baghdad, said, "If we get more seats, it will be quieter. The ones who were absent in January will now have a voice."

They have a voice partly because of the apparent success of the recently adopted American/Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy of "clear and hold." There may now be a realization among Sunnis that the insurgency is not winning, and thus may not be the best way for them to recover their lost power--or even to strengthen their bargaining position. Sunni fence sitters seem to be tilting toward involvement in the political process. A more active counterinsurgency strategy--and the presence of 160,000 American troops--has not, as some predicted, reduced Sunni participation in the political process or engendered greater hostility and violence. On the contrary, the extra troops helped provide the security that made it safer for Sunnis and others to vote, and for democracy to take root. If American and Iraqi troops continue to provide basic security, and if Iraq's different sects and political groups now begin to engage in serious, peaceful bargaining, then we may just have witnessed the beginning of Iraq's future.

And not only Iraq's future. One 50-year-old Shiite schoolteacher told the Los Angeles Times, "I am proud as an Iraqi because our country is becoming a center of attraction for all Arab countries. The new situation in Iraq, the democratic system, is starting to put pressure on the Arab systems to make some changes toward democracy." Such thoughts cannot yet be freely expressed in the salons of Washington, D.C., and New York City. But they seem to make sense in today's Iraq.

Has this one election settled everything, or even anything? Is Iraq now safely on the path to a durable democracy? Of course not. One voter told a New York Times reporter, "Iraqis aren't used to democracy, we have to learn it." True enough. They will have to learn it, and this learning process will take time and be attended by many backward steps, many errors, and many crises. But now, at least, they have a chance.

Iraqis would not have had that chance had the United States chosen to leave Saddam Hussein in power. They would not have had that chance if American troops had been withdrawn or reduced from the already inadequate levels established after the invasion in 2003. And they will lose that chance if the United States now begins a hasty reduction of forces. Burns reports that even Sunnis unhappy with the American presence favor only a "gradual drawdown," and only if Iraq has achieved a sufficient level of security and stability. "Let's have stability, and then the Americans can go home," one Iraqi store owner told Burns. Informed that President Bush was saying exactly the same thing, this man replied: "Then Bush has said it correctly".

Voting As Victory

Bush is right about elections on the Arab street — even if we don’t always like the results.

By Daniel Freedman

What critics of the Bush Doctrine fail to realize is that whatever happens in the Middle East — whether Islamists or secular democrats win in free elections — the policy of democratizing the Middle East creates a win-win situation for America and the free world. The Bush Doctrine finally provides a test for the now-famous Daniel Pipes statement that if the problem is radical Islam the solution is moderate Islam. The doctrine will test whether the Arab world is compatible with democracy and liberty or not. And if it's not, it's better we learn this now, when we're militarily stronger and better placed for the clash of civilizations that such a conclusion entails.

It's more likely that the pessimists — those who believe that Arabs/Muslims are not suited for democracy and will turn to radical Islamist parties — are wrong. While they may point to Iranian-backed Islamists winning in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood increasing its share of the vote in Egypt, and the predictions that Hamas is set to do very well in the Palestinian Arab elections, and they may charge that democracy looks set to replace secular dictators with (in their view) far-worse theocrats, what the pessimists miss is that elections do not a democracy make. The success or failure of the Bush Doctrine cannot be judged on a few elections.

A liberal democracy is one that has a free press, a vibrant civil society, and property rights. A liberal democracy is not born overnight with the defeat of a dictator. In fact the defeat of a dictator actually portends to the likelihood of an initial victory for religious parties. This is because dictators usually clamp down on any civil-society movements and the only alternative power structure that exists is based around the mosque. This means that after the dictatorship falls secular democrats are starting from scratch while the Islamists have their voter-base and organization all set up. Only after the secular parties have a chance to organize and grow, and civil society develops, will the true appeal of the Islamic parties be seen.

But even if the pessimists are right, even if democracy for the Arab world means democratically elected Wahhabi or Tehran-style rule, even if the Arab street embraces radical rather than moderate Islam, it's to our advantage that we discover this now. It still wasn't a mistake to remove Saddam and it's not a mistake to push for democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and co. The old policy of backing our "sons of bitches" in Cairo and Riyadh gave us the majority of the terrorists and funding for the September 11, 2001, attacks. And America was unable to punish them for their complicity because were "our sons of ------." To say that the status quo worked is to be living in a September 10, 2001, world.

But if the pessimists are right it is to our advantage that we discover now that the Arab world and Islam is fundamentally incompatible with our liberal democratic values, and that their goal of seeking a global caliphate means they are permanently at war with everything we stand for. If the clash of civilizations is inevitable, it's better we learn this when we're stronger, when we have the stronger military and the nuclear weapons, and can defeat them in an all-out war and destroy them before they destroy us.

If as free individuals, as democrats, the citizens of the Arab world effectively declare war against us by voting in Islamists who wish to kill every non-Muslim, then we have every justification to go to war against them. It's much better that the world has learned the true intentions of the theocrats in Tehran — their desire to wipe Israel and America off the map — before they've acquired nuclear weapons. If the shah was still in power and as "our son of a -----" the American government didn't stop him acquiring nuclear weapons, and the Islamic revolution happened in post-nuke 2007 rather than pre-nuke 1979, the world would be a far more dangerous place.

If the pessimists are right then the president has done the free world a huge favor by exposing the inevitable clash of civilizations at a point in history where we will triumph. And if the pessimists are wrong, he's done the Arab world a favor as well.

Daniel Freedman is online editor of the New York Sun and blogs.

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