Among the many commentaries about the popular movements toward democracy that have sprung up so suddenly in the Arab world, one possible cause has received less attention that it deserves: the example of democracy in Iraq.
The idea that the example of the people of Iraq setting up a functioning democracy may have had a role in inspiring the wave of democracy movements moving across the Arab world now is generally met with open derision. An example can be seen in this Dialogue between Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus. They are arguing about the causes of Egypt's revolution and Kaus states that one of those causes is the example of Iraq's democracy, which Kaus claims is at least as important as twitter. Wright rolls his eyes and says something along the lines of "Oh I am sure there are people all over the Middle-East saying, 'Yes, I wish I could get blown up in my bed and murdered by terrorists," and argues that the security situation in Iraq has probably made retarded the cause of democracy in the Arab world if anything.
I find this somewhat disturbing in a way that I find hard to put into words, exactly. The Americans and the advocates for democracy have not been engaging in acts of terrorism to spread democracy, it has been the opponents of democracy that have been using terror as their weapon. It is true that this terror has been a direct consequence of America's invasion and so the US has a moral responsibility to do all it reasonably can to combat this campaign of terror against democracy, but that is still something quite different from engaging in a campaign of terror.
Of course, Mr. Wright's point is that it doesn't matter to a fellow whose family is being murdered how good your intentions were. People are going to look at the situation in Iraq and many in the Arab world will reasonably conclude from it that democracy may not be a good system for us. They will look at it and certainly not find in it any great reason to go out and try to bring the same system to their country. But that is a different thing from saying that the example of Iraq cannot inspire the Arab world or create very real pressure for on the other governments of the Arab world to change in a democratic direction.
They may find that they do not like the security situation that comes with a violent transition to democracy and still find in the situation in Iraq things that are desirable and, more importantly perhaps, things that undermine the case that has been for decades in the Arab world that the Arabs are not suited to democracy.
For one thing, there seems to be a great deal of free speech in Iraq. The rest of the Arab world might be aware of that and may be truly envious of it. They may find that things are now being said out loud in the Arab world that people have been thinking privately for years. I do not know this for a fact, but it strikes me at least as being very plausible. The people of Iraq have been plodding along getting governments elected, going out to the polls in the face of the most dire threats, and talking back to their leaders with a great deal of heartfelt vituperation. These must have some effect on the rest of the Arab world. It hardly seems impossible that others in the Arab world can feel inspired and in a certain way a bit shamed by the example set by the people of Iraq, and, in part, precisely because of the things that Mr. Wright points out. They have set up and got their democracy going by millions of ordinary citizens fighting for themselves, taking great personal risks, and facing down a monstrous terrorist campaign from the off shoots of al Qaeda and the agents of Iran. It is not hard to see that they might be in some way a bit disappointed in themselves, they might say to themselves, if the Iraqis can govern themselves in the face of such opposition maybe I can face the secret police or at least join a protest.
And there is another way in which the example of Iraq may have given impetus to the events in Tunisia and Egypt: the example of Iraq has undone the argument Arabs can't have democracy because America and the West will somehow prevent it, and the concomitant argument that Arabs need do nothing but wait for the Americans to allow them to have democracy.
Here is where it is very important that the Americans have not been the ones committing the terrorist campaign, however much we may bare ultimate responsibility for it having occurred in the first place. It is only through the most strained arguments that one can deny that the forces against democracy have been home grown in the Middle-East, have in fact come from the very forces and ideologies that have been most anti-Western, while it has been the West, and primarily the Americans and the other English speaking peoples, that have fought and made sacrifices for democracy.
My point is not that the Arabs should be grateful to us, much less that they are. I only point out that the argument that America's support for democracy is a sort of put-on, or worse, that we are the reason that there is no democracy in the Arab world, or that the fix is in and America would some how undercut any real movement toward democracy, or that there is no use trying to do anything because the Americans and the Zionists will always just install another dictator, or--and this is the one that has really been undone by the Iraq adventure--if only the true believers would wage jihad to rid us of the forces of the West then we could truly be free, all of these arguments have been put on thin ice by the example of Iraqis practicing democracy and the Americans getting killed to give them a chance to succeed.
Here is where I find the attitude of Mr. Wright so unfair. It does matter very much that the people terrorizing Iraq and making democracy there a bloody trial are the forces of Islamism, the most anti-American forces in the Middle-East. To allow the violence that they have caused in their attempt to strangle Arab democracy in the crib reminds me of those die-hard Southerners that used the example of the violence that followed reconstruction and the terrible conditions in that followed under the Jim Crow regime as an argument against fighting to end slavery. "How is that 'freedom' working out for you, boy?" Of course, in many ways the situation for blacks after the Civil War was arguably as bad as or even worse than slavery. But to use that fact as an argument against ending slavery seems at best a bit incomplete. It is at least relevant to point out that the reason that freedom resulted in a situation that was not an obvious improvement on slavery was not because of the failings of blacks or freedom really not being as intrinsically valuable as its advocates claimed, it was because of a terrorist campaign waged by the very people that opposed freedom for blacks all along. To allow their argument against freedom to be reinforced or to be given support by the violence and terror they used to destroy freedom is somewhat perverse.
It is also somewhat perverse, indeed, even cruel, to say that the example of the blacks who fought for freedom in the Civil and in the Reconstruction era could not inspire other blacks to fight for their freedom. In the same way, I think that saying the example of the Iraqi people standing up to terrorism and fighting for democracy cannot inspire the rest of the Arab world to stand up to their dictators is cruel. To dismiss the sacrifices of people that have been murdered for daring to try to rule themselves, to speak their minds freely and to claim for themselves the rights that we hold sacred is, to laugh at the idea that others might be inspired by their example is, if not perverse, then certainly ill-advised. For it tells those who would have use terror to snuff out self-rule that all they have to do to win is keep the bodies count on the increase.
Many people had good reasons for opposing the decision to invade Iraq and for criticizing the way it was fought. But too often this legitimate and often valuable criticism of the Iraq war seems to cross over into a belittling of the Iraqi people and the cause of democracy. It seems that the anger that should be directed at our own leaders is mistakenly directed at our friends and, worse, is allowed to give aid to our worst enemies.
Here is a link sent to me by Allan Eyrich from the Economist where the same argument is examined and rejected--rather perfunctorily in my opinion. More about that later.