The Magazine

A Realigning Election

From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: President Bush never accepted the notion that Iraqis or other Arab or Muslim peoples are not "ready" for democracy. As a result millions of Iraqis (and Afghans) have now voted.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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THE DAY AFTER IRAQIS WENT to the polls, the London Independent commented, "In the long term, it is possible that yesterday's elections in Iraq may be seen as marking the start of great change across the whole region." Needless to say, the editors hastened to add that it would be "utterly wrong, now or in the future, for President Bush or the prime minister to claim that Iraq's elections vindicate their invasion." But the first statement was by far the more striking, both because it came from an antiwar, anti-Bush newspaper and because it was undeniably true.

Let's set aside for the moment President Bush's two recent speeches, and all the doctrinal debates they have spurred, and simply focus on what has actually happened, in the real world, over the past year. First, there were the elections in Afghanistan last October. Despite predictions of disaster, eight million Afghans voted for the first time in their war-savaged lives. Afghan women, who but three years before were among the most oppressed people on earth, were able to cast ballots as full-fledged citizens. As one Afghan told a New York Times reporter, "In the whole history of Afghanistan this is the first time we come and choose our leader in democratic process and free condition. I feel very proud and I feel very happy." The Times reported that the man, a Tajik, had voted for Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun.

Then, in December, came the crisis and democratic triumph in Ukraine. Elections stolen by a corrupt Ukrainian government with the connivance of Russia's ruler, Vladimir Putin, were reversed by a massive display of "people power" in the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. A new round of elections brought some 27 million Ukrainians out to vote--roughly three-quarters of those registered--in what will go down in history as the "Orange Revolution." "This is the people's victory," one man told a Washington Post reporter. "Ukraine will finally achieve what it wanted when it got its independence from the Soviet Union. Democracy will finally reign in this country. It won't happen overnight, but it's begun."

Then, last month, the Palestinian people held elections for a new prime minister, the first in nine years. There, too, turnout was huge, and the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, received an overwhelming majority of the votes. As one senior Fatah leader told the Washington Post, "This is a historic vote for us. The most important thing is not the winner. The most important thing is to see the Palestinian people committed to the principle of democracy."

And this commitment has improved the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israel is beginning the process of withdrawing from West Bank towns, as well as from the Gaza strip, and has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Prime Minister Abbas appears to be taking serious steps toward ending Palestinian attacks on Israel. And on February 8, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Abbas will hold a summit in Egypt, the first such summit in nearly two years.

The elections in Palestine were critical to this progress, as was the death of Yasser Arafat. President Bush had all along insisted there could be no progress toward peace so long as Arafat remained in power, and that any progress would come as a result of new, democratic elections in Palestine. The president was pilloried in Europe, and by some in the United States, for holding to that position over the past two years. Now, it appears, he has been proven right.

Finally, there were the elections in Iraq. We don't need to add to the stories that Americans already know well, of millions of Iraqis risking their lives to cast votes, defying the terrorists who threatened to kill them and in some cases succeeded. But it is worth contemplating whether, as the Independent suggests, the Iraq elections may mark "the start of great change across the whole region."

Not so long ago, indeed right up until the day of the elections, this kind of thinking was treated as delusional. The vast majority of the American foreign policy establishment--Democrat and Republican, left, right, and center--ridiculed the whole notion that "democracy" should be America's goal in Iraq, not to mention across the broader Middle East and Muslim world. Even the community of professional democracy "experts" cluck-clucked at the Bush administration's "childish fantasies." Larry Diamond, perhaps the dean of that community, flatly declared several weeks before the elections in Iraq that they would "grease the slide to civil war."