A War for Democracy?

Like Woodrow Wilson during World War I, George W. Bush has held out the promise that by going to war, America can make the world safe for democracy. Once Saddam Hussein is ousted, we can turn Iraq into a political and economic model for the Arab world, addressing the causes of terrorism at their roots. Some liberals who support the war are attracted by this vision -- and indeed it has its attractions. But just as the outcome of World War I dashed the hopes of pro-war progressives and set the stage for an even more terrible conflict, so war in Iraq may bring not just disappointment but further cycles of bloodshed.

Deep-seated political realities ought to make us skeptical about the likelihood of an American-led democratic revolution in the Middle East. After World War I, Wilson's promises of popular self-determination were betrayed partly because America's allies had no intention of fulfilling them. In the Mideast today, the United States is similarly allied with regimes distinctly unenthusiastic about popular control, nor for that matter would we be so enthusiastic if free elections brought Islamic fundamentalists to power. Even Turkey, the one democracy among Islamic countries in the region, wants to ensure that the Kurds in Iraq don't gain independence, and the deal that the Bush administration originally made allowing Turkey to send its army into northern Iraq was a signal of predictable concessions to power strikingly similar to the pattern after World War I.

That Iraq itself has no democratic heritage is not a fatal objection to democratic hopes, but it makes the task enormously difficult. The Iraqis have no traditions of rule of law, civilian control of the military or free elections; after years of despotism and minority control, the deep suspicions among ethnoreligious groups will make it hard even to maintain the country's political stability. It's unlikely that any American administration would be prepared to stay engaged in Iraq for the length of time needed to develop a new political culture.

But the seriousness of this administration's commitment is particularly doubtful. During the 2000 campaign, Bush repeatedly disparaged "nation building," and his administration quickly lost interest in Afghanistan once the Taliban regime was toppled. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in late February, the president embraced the idea of making Iraq a model of freedom, but his failure to acknowledge the arduousness of the project suggests that he either doesn't grasp its complexity or was merely making an expedient argument to justify an invasion.

For those who genuinely believe we can turn Iraq into a "beacon of freedom," the great precedents are the democratization of Japan and Germany after 1945, but these examples point up how long and costly such an undertaking might be. American forces occupied Japan for seven years, and West Germany did not become fully sovereign until 1955; both countries were long barred from fully rearming, and for decades the United States assumed much of the burden of their defense from the Soviet Union. The Japanese and German cases, moreover, are not parallel with Iraq in the most elementary respects: World War II had extinguished fascism, whereas a war in Iraq will leave undemocratic regimes standing throughout the region and inflame the forces most hostile to America.

In addition, the United States after World War II helped to establish a new framework of international security, whereas Bush's unilateralism is now weakening the institutions created at that time. If the international community had been convinced that force was necessary against Hussein, we might have shared the burdens of peacekeeping and reconstruction in Iraq, and an occupation would have enjoyed far greater legitimacy. Turning Iraq into an Anglo-American protectorate ensures that the costs and political risks of an occupation will be ours.

The entire idea of an American-led democratic revolution in the Mideast has an air of fantasy about it, as if an American military presence were likely only to inspire assimilation of our values rather than resentment of our power. It will be easier to overthrow Hussein than it will be to stop a chain of events likely to draw us ever more deeply into the conflicts of the region -- especially because the hawks among us actually look forward to flexing American muscle throughout the Mideast. Soon we may be worrying about a deadly confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. And terrorism may be less likely to subside. When al-Qaeda struck on September 11, the world regarded the United States as an innocent victim of fanaticism; by occupying Iraq, we will be helping the terrorists make the case to Islamist and nationalist forces that America is the appropriate target of their anger.

I no longer write these words with much hope that we can avert an escalating cycle of violence. As this magazine goes to press on March 11, war seems imminent, and the administration is counting on a quick victory to claim vindication and make all the earlier objections to military action irrelevant. But even a quick victory will create new dangers to our security that a wiser leadership could have avoided.

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