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."

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?

The next steps in Iraq will of course still be difficult. In particular, the brave Iraqi voters deserve the commitment of the United States to remain fully engaged in the struggle to defeat the terrorists. And even as the security situation improves, as we trust it will, the political process will remain messy. No one should expect miracles. But the fact remains that it is today more possible than ever before to envision a future in which the Middle East and the Muslim world truly are transformed. For this, no one will deserve more credit than George W. Bush.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol