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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Indeed, even as millions of Iraqis were casting their votes, we were being told, in Newsweek, in the New Republic, and elsewhere, that their votes were essentially meaningless. The "wrong" people would be elected, because the Iraqis are not decent enough, "liberal" enough, to elect the right people. "Elections are not democracy!" we were reminded. True enough. Nor does one election guarantee "liberalism." But, the fact is there can be neither democracy nor liberalism without elections.

And then there is this simple point: How can anyone living in this flourishing democracy tell the people of Iraq that they should not vote for their own leaders, that they are not "ready"? President Bush is sometimes accused of arrogance, but the true and appalling arrogance consists of telling the Iraqi people that they are not capable of electing the right kind of people. And are we so afraid of letting the Shia, who make up more than 60 percent of the Iraqi population, or the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent, win their fair share of votes in a free election? Are we really willing to deny these people the right to choose their own representatives?

Thankfully, 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. How will this remarkable exercise of democracy affect the rest of the Arab and Muslim world? We remain confident that progress toward liberal democracy in Iraq will increase the chances that governments in the Middle East will open up, and that the peoples of the Middle East will demand their rights. And the chances increase every time the president singles out nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and Syria, for special mention, as he did in the State of the Union. Words do matter, especially against the backdrop of deeds in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will, for example, be elections in Lebanon this summer, where an opposition victory could spell the beginning of the end of Syria's imperial role in that country. As for Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, you don't have to take our word for it. Jordan's King Abdullah put it best: "People are waking up. [Arab] leaders understand that they have to push reform forward, and I don't think there is any looking back."

Here in the United States, the partisan reaction to the recent successes has been truly stunning. Never have so many been so miserable in the face of such good news. The Middle East experts who predicted disaster have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that it wasn't a disaster after all. Instead, they have simply shifted to predicting disaster in the future, or to falsely claiming that Iraqi Shia, who follow Ayatollah Sistani's lead, are tools of Iran. The democracy experts have been particularly egregious as well. Has their hatred of Bush made it impossible for them actually to applaud democratic elections when they occur?

We also have to admit being disappointed at the reaction of Democrats. We have no naive expectation of bipartisanship. We recall perfectly well how many Republicans refused to give Bill Clinton credit when he deserved it, in Bosnia and Kosovo. Nor is there anything surprising in Ted Kennedy's monotonous counsel of doom: In Kennedy's world, as in John Kerry's, the dream will never die, and the Vietnam war will never end. But where are the other Democrats, even a handful of them, to stand up and applaud the gains of democracy around the world?

There was a time when the spread of freedom was a foreign policy ideal Democrats cherished. In 1984, when El Salvador held its own round of miraculous elections in the midst of a bloody civil war, many prominent Democrats threw their support behind Ronald Reagan's policies in that country--not because they liked Reagan but because they cared about spreading democracy, and fighting communism, in Central America. And in 1999, while many Republicans attacked Clinton's intervention in Kosovo, some stood by the president and even criticized their colleagues. This magazine supported Clinton throughout the Kosovo conflict, not because we were exceptionally fond of Clinton, and not because we had complete confidence that he was prosecuting the war effectively, but simply because, at the end of the day, we thought he was doing the right thing. Is it so hard for Democrats, with the next presidential election still almost four years off, to overcome their Bush-hatred just for a moment in order to join in supporting the cause of freedom and democracy?