The Magazine

"Happy Days!"

The Iraqi elections really could be a turning point.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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They have a voice partly because of the apparent success of the recently adopted American/Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy of "clear and hold." There may now be a realization among Sunnis that the insurgency is not winning, and thus may not be the best way for them to recover their lost power--or even to strengthen their bargaining position. Sunni fence sitters seem to be tilting toward involvement in the political process. A more active counterinsurgency strategy--and the presence of 160,000 American troops--has not, as some predicted, reduced Sunni participation in the political process or engendered greater hostility and violence. On the contrary, the extra troops helped provide the security that made it safer for Sunnis and others to vote, and for democracy to take root. If American and Iraqi troops continue to provide basic security, and if Iraq's different sects and political groups now begin to engage in serious, peaceful bargaining, then we may just have witnessed the beginning of Iraq's future.

And not only Iraq's future. One 50-year-old Shiite schoolteacher told the Los Angeles Times, "I am proud as an Iraqi because our country is becoming a center of attraction for all Arab countries. The new situation in Iraq, the democratic system, is starting to put pressure on the Arab systems to make some changes toward democracy." Such thoughts cannot yet be freely expressed in the salons of Washington, D.C., and New York City. But they seem to make sense in today's Iraq.

Has this one election settled everything, or even anything? Is Iraq now safely on the path to a durable democracy? Of course not. One voter told a New York Times reporter, "Iraqis aren't used to democracy, we have to learn it." True enough. They will have to learn it, and this learning process will take time and be attended by many backward steps, many errors, and many crises. But now, at least, they have a chance.

Iraqis would not have had that chance had the United States chosen to leave Saddam Hussein in power. They would not have had that chance if American troops had been withdrawn or reduced from the already inadequate levels established after the invasion in 2003. And they will lose that chance if the United States now begins a hasty reduction of forces. Burns reports that even Sunnis unhappy with the American presence favor only a "gradual drawdown," and only if Iraq has achieved a sufficient level of security and stability. "Let's have stability, and then the Americans can go home," one Iraqi store owner told Burns. Informed that President Bush was saying exactly the same thing, this man replied: "Then Bush has said it correctly".

-Robert Kagan and William Kristol