The Magazine

On Democracy in Iraq

It's starting to take root.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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And Senator Reid should take note: As a Shiite-led democracy grows, the calls for an American withdrawal will increase. Which is fine. Iraqi nationalism is vibrant among the Shiites, especially those who are religious. And democracy in Iraq, as elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East, is unlikely to be particularly affectionate toward the United States. Iraqi democracy is much more likely to free American soldiers to go home than is chaos in Mesopotamia.

Critics of the surge often underscore the absence of a clearly defined post-surge political strategy. Echoing Rumsfeld and Abizaid, these critics believe that only a "political solution"--that is, Shiite and Kurdish concessions to the once-dominant Sunni minority--can solve Iraq's trauma. The Bush administration has largely been in agreement with this view, following a strategy since 2004 of trying to placate the Sunnis.

It hasn't worked. In all probability, it could not. Certainly an approach that centers on de-de-Baathification is destined to fail since the vast majority of Iraq's Shiites, and probably Kurds, too, oppose any deal that would allow the Sunni Baathist elite back into government. And de-de-Baathification is not about letting Sunni Arab teachers, engineers, and nurses back into the government job market. It's about the Baathist Sunni elite getting the power and prestige of senior positions, especially in the military and security services. If we really want Iraq to succeed in the long term, we will stop pushing this idea. Onetime totalitarian societies that more thoroughly purge despotic party members have done much better than those that allow the old guard to stay on (think Russia). Grand Ayatollah Sistani is right about this; the State Department and the CIA are wrong.

The Sunni insurgency will likely cease when the Sunnis, who have been addicted to power and the perception of the Shiites as a God-ordained underclass, know in their hearts that they cannot win against the Shiites, that continued fighting will only make their situation worse. Thanks in part to the ferocity of vengeful Shiite militias, we are getting there. And the growing realization in Iraq, and among Western oil companies, that substantial oil deposits exist in the Sunni Arab zone could prove helpful in assuaging Sunni fears about starving in the new Iraq. Even for Iraqi Sunnis, the signs for a better future are increasing. A livable democratic arrangement is there if Sunni Arabs choose to take it. One thing ought to be clear: Without President Bush's surge, the only thing Iraq's Sunnis can look forward to is war, death, and exile. If there are potentially influential moderates among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the "surge" is their last chance to change the rejectionist temperament and tactics of the community.

So the surge deserves to be supported. This is not the time for talk of timetables for withdrawal--much less talk of a war that is lost. It isn't inconsistent to scorch Bush for his failures--and still to argue that the American blood we will spill in Iraq in the surge is worth the possibility of success. Do thoughtful Democrats really believe that the Middle East, America's long fight against Sunni jihadism, and our standing in the world against potential aggressors and bullies will be improved by a precipitous and mandated departure from Mesopotamia? The Democratic party is beginning to sound like an echo chamber for Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for the most inept and calamitous Democratic administration of modern times.

We, too, have benchmarks for Iraq. The surge needs to show real progress in providing security by the beginning of 2008. American and Iraqi forces in Baghdad will have to figure out a way to diminish significantly the number and lethality of Sunni suicide bombers. Given the topography of Baghdad, the possible routes of attack against the capital's Shiite denizens, and the common traits of Iraq's Arabs, this will be difficult. If we and the Iraqis cannot do this, then the radicalization of the Shiites will continue, and it will be only a question of time before the Shiite community collectively decides that the Sunnis as a group are beyond the pale, and a countrywide war of religious cleansing will become likely.

If the U.S. military can change the reality and spirit of Baghdad, the rest of Iraq will change too. Contrary to the despair of so many, internal Iraqi politics will probably be the easiest part of this campaign. In the next few months, of course, things could go to hell. One suicide bomber killing the right Shiite VIPs could threaten all. Yet with Petraeus, Maliki, and Sistani in charge, things may work out. If they do, we can only hope that by the time they do, the leadership of the Democratic party will have ceased to have anything in common with those Sunni Arabs who have always wanted the new Iraq to fail.

--Reuel Marc Gerecht, for the Editors