The Magazine

Iraq One Year Later

From the March 22, 2004 issue: Real and important progress has been made in this momentous, and at times trying, year.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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A YEAR HAS PASSED since the invasion of Iraq, and while no sensible person would claim that Iraqis are safely and irrevocably on a course to liberal democracy, the honest and rather remarkable truth is that they have made enormous strides in that direction. The signing on March 8 of the Iraqi interim constitution--containing the strongest guarantees of individual, minority, and women's rights and liberties to be found anywhere in the Arab world--is the most obvious success. But there are other measures of progress, as well. Electricity and oil production in Iraq have returned to prewar levels. The capture of Saddam Hussein has damaged the Baathist-led insurgency, although jihadists continue to launch horrific attacks on Iraqi civilians. But by most accounts those vicious attacks have spurred more Iraqis to get more involved in building a better Iraq. We may have turned a corner in terms of security.

What's more, there are hopeful signs that Iraqis of differing religious, ethnic, and political persuasions can work together. This is a far cry from the predictions made before the war by many, both here and in Europe, that a liberated Iraq would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath. The perpetually sour American media focus on the tensions between Shiites and Kurds that delayed the signing by three whole days. But the difficult negotiations leading up to the signing, and the continuing debates over the terms of a final constitution, have in fact demonstrated something remarkable in Iraq: a willingness on the part of the diverse ethnic and religious groups to disagree--peacefully--and then to compromise.

This willingness is the product of what appears to be a broad Iraqi consensus favoring the idea of pluralism. The interim constitution itself represents a promising compromise between the legitimate desire of the majority Shiites to be fairly represented in the Iraqi government--for the first time in a century--and the equally legitimate desire of Kurds and Sunnis to be protected from a tyranny of the majority. These are never easy matters to resolve, as our own Founders knew well. Add to these problems the vexing question of the role of Islam in Iraqi politics and society, and the complexities multiply. Yet here, too, the Iraqis seem to have struck a hopeful balance. Islam is respected in the constitution as the national religion. But that does not impinge on the basic rights of Iraqis, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This does not seem to be a Muslim theocracy in the making. Indeed, the way in which the Iraqi constitution reconciles liberal democracy with the culture and religion of Islam really is an encouraging and feasible model for others in the Islamic world.

A share of the credit for Iraq's achievements so far should go to the leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani. He has of course consistently represented the interests of the long-oppressed Shiite majority. But he has also consistently supported liberal democratic processes and institutions in Iraq. Indeed, he has been more persistent in urging free and democratic elections than some top American officials, who for months put off elections out of fear of their possible consequences and tried to set up a clumsy system of "caucuses" to choose a constituent assembly. Now they have changed course and agree that real elections are both simpler and far preferable in conferring legitimacy on any Iraqi government or final constitution.

The administration's about-face on elections is one of several instances over the past year where American officials have had to recover from misjudgments about the reconstruction of Iraq. The first and most serious misjudgment concerned the level of American troops. Even though it was apparent by early summer 2003 that there were too few troops to provide security for the reconstruction effort, the administration remained committed to drawing down the number of forces. These plans along with other instances of apparent wavering led many people in the United States, in Europe, and most damaging of all in Iraq, to conclude last fall that the Bush administration was looking for an early exit. Fortunately, President Bush moved to squelch all talk of an exit strategy, and the number of American troops in Iraq has actually risen slightly. This has not only increased security but, just as importantly, has sent a powerful signal of U.S. determination to remain in Iraq as long as needed.