Yes, disarming Saddam Hussein and thwarting his ambitions to create an oil-rich, nuclear armed Babylonian empire is the primary goal of American policy in Iraq. But if, in the process, the Iraqi people could be liberated from decades of oppression, would that not be a welcome outcome?
Astonishingly, not everyone thinks so. Leave aside the far left, the blame-America-firsters, the “realistic” Republicans and the reflexively pro-appeasement caucus within the Democratic Party. There still remain influential individuals – not least in the State Department and the CIA – who believe that
1) Democracy can’t take root in Iraq’s arid soil
2) That it would not be in the US interest were Iraq to attempt to move from totalitarianism to democracy
3) That Iraq’s Shi’ites would become a 5th column for the Iranian mullahs
4) That the Saudi royal family would be uncomfortable with a democracy on its border – and anything that bothers the Saudis royals bothers them.
The first view is based on the belief that the peoples of the Arab world are simply not able to manage a sophisticated form of government. That’s called prejudice (if not racism) and it’s reprehensible.
The second view is based on the fear that free elections would lead to “one man, one vote, one time” -- and that radical Islamists would then take over in Iraq. In fact, there is no reason to believe that the historically urbane and secular Iraqis, finally released from under Saddam’s jackboot, would willingly subject themselves to another despotism.
As for Iraq’s Shi’ites, they are Arabs, not Persians, a strong limitation on any fraternal attraction.
And as for the discomfort the Saudi royals would experience having a democratic society on their doorstep -- that might be just the incentive needed to spur long-delayed and sorely needed reforms.
What’s more, we already know for certain that the day after Saddam’s departure from the scene, we will have pro-democracy, anti-terrorist Iraqi allies to work with. The best-known of these is the Iraqi National Congress (INC) led by Ahmed Chalabi. Under Chalabi’s leadership, the INC would energetically go about creating a multi-ethnic umbrella coalition – one committed to pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law. Chalabi also is unequivocally pro-American. Surely, this is a reasonable foundation on which to begin Iraq’s rehabilitation.
Chalabi has more than his share of critics. But as one former CIA agent said, Chalabi may be an ideal opposition leader “for the very reasons that often cause critics to trash him. He is rich, upper class (in the old-world sense), well educated, highly Westernized, an expatriate, and, last but not least, a Shi’ite Arab.”
What’s more, the template for a new, post-Saddam Iraq already exists – within Iraq’s borders. A just-released study from the organization I head, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, documents the impressive progress of the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq, now protected from Saddam by US and British warplanes. These areas have developed into a remarkably open and prosperous society, one that can serve as the model for a new Iraq – free and democratic with substantial autonomy for each of Iraq’s important ethnic and religious groups. (Those groups include the Kurds, mostly but not entirely Sunni Muslims; the Shi’ites who comprise at least 60 percent of the general population and most of the army’s rank-and-file, and the Sunni Arabs, less than 30 percent.)
No one is arguing that liberating Iraq and helping Iraqis to reconstruct their country will be cheap or easy. No one is arguing that post-Saddam Iraq will emerge overnight into a Middle Eastern Switzerland. But just as Afghanistan post-Taliban was an immediate improvement over what existed before – Kabul’s stadium used for soccer matches rather than for the amputations of infidels, girls permitted to attend school, the playing of music without fear of arrest – so Iraq will be improved the instant Saddam’s Islamofascist regime can no longer inspire fear and the Iraqi people have an opportunity for a fresh start in a region no longer threatened by a megalomaniac dictator.
And while it may be too much to expect, it is not to much to hope that Iraq before long could join with democratic Turkey and democratic Israel to form a new coalition, one that is moderate and pro-American, one that seeks freedom and peace in a region that has known little of either.
Clifford D. May, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.