Small incidents tell large truths. A little over a week ago in London thousands of Iraqi expatriates queued up politely in the best British style outside their embassy to vote. Nearby 200 demonstrators chanted slogans urging them to reject democracy. Mainly ignored, occasionally barracked by the would-be voters, making no impact, they eventually rolled up their banners and trudged forlornly away.
In Iraq those demonstrators would have been armed and dangerous. Iraqi terrorists killed 36 innocent people on polling day across the country.
But British bobbies were on hand in London–or “Londonistan” as the expats call it–to ensure that nothing got out of hand. And what transpired was just another London Sunday demo by Middle Eastern protesters. Ho-hum.
What large truth does this incident tell us? Well, among others, it shows that the number of self-conscious principled enemies of democracy is extremely small.
In an orderly society, Nazis, Communists, divine-right monarchists, Islamofascists, and all the other cranks and panacea-mongers can just about mount a small demo but they don’t have the numbers to sway or halt an election.
In principle at least, even if not always in practice, every modern person who has not swallowed the hemlock of extremist ideology accepts that political equality and popular consent are the bedrock principles of modern government across cultures and religions.
Iraq is not, of course, an orderly society. It is a society in a near-civil war as it moves from the dictatorial rule of Baathist socialism to modern democracy. Its terrorists are a combination of Baathist bitter-enders and Islamofascists. But its people are ordinary modern citizens. And they see democracy as a form of protection against the rule of these dangerous madmen.
That is the underlying reason why Iraq’s first fully democratic national election was such a remarkable success with a better-than-expected 60-percent turnout amid an atmosphere of civic celebration.
As late as the morning of the vote, even friendly observers saw the election as poised between two alternatives: Either the terrorists would succeed in deterring voters by murdering them or there would be a decent turnout of about 50 percent.
In the event both things happened: The terrorists killed 35 would-be voters but 60 percent of Iraqis voted anyway. And when the final figures are announced we will know how many Sunnis turned out–maybe as many as 40 percent.
Remember, too, that every vote cast in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle was an extraordinary act of civic courage.
Compare a national turnout of 60 percent and a Sunni turnout of 40 percent with the 45 percent turnout in last year’s European-parliament elections in which some national averages fell below 20 percent.
And, finally, imagine how few Europeans would have voted if the price of the franchise was a real risk of being murdered. That said, the hard part of building democracy now begins.
For though there are only a handful of conscious anti-democrats in today’s world, there are many people who reject democracy in practice or at crucial moments because they think its operation will threaten their personal safety, their property, their ethnic group, their religion, or some other thing they value above democracy.
And sometimes their fears are reasonable. Iraq has several groups that might reasonably feel unqualified majoritarian rule would threaten some of these things.
Kurds are an ethnic minority. Sunni Muslims are a religious minority. And the Shiite Muslims who are the religious majority, having been the victims of discrimination for many years, might be thought to harbor visions of revenge in democratic disguise.
It is to deal with such reasonable fears that liberal constitutions typically protect certain rights–free speech, a free press, free assembly–against abuse by the majority in power.
And we judge a country to be fully democratic only when it has respected these rights through years and crises. Democracy needs both a liberal constitution and a liberal constitutional tradition.
Will the Iraq election lead to a stable democratic government with constitutional protection for minority rights in two or three years? Or will it break down amid religious and communal acrimony and lead to a civil war between Sunni, Kurd, and Shiite?
Consider: Iraq has a well-educated people, considerable oil wealth, a strong middle class, and even a tradition of elections and limited democracy under the British and the monarchy.
In other words, it has most of the usual preconditions for a successful democracy. It also has prudent religious leaders and a sophisticated political establishment who want a decent constitutional compromise.
And, finally, the election atmosphere of joyful democratic commitment suggests that Iraqis may be increasingly united by a national patriotism that could help overcome communal rivalries.
So there are good reasons to hope that Iraq will surmount the obstacles of ethnic and religious division. That leaves the more sinister threat of the principled anti-democrats in the terrorist “insurgency.”
No government, however legitimate, can survive if it fails to provide its citizens with public safety. Moreover, every voter effectively cast two votes on Sunday, one for the party of his choice, the other against the terrorists.
So the new Iraqi government has a clear mandate to crush terrorism with, if necessary, considerable ruthlessness.
A strong symbol of its determination would be the early trial and execution of Saddam Hussain and his leading accomplices. That would end any hope by Baathist bitter-enders of a restoration of the regime.
It would also meet the deep need of the Iraqi people for the just punishment of their oppressors. And if the Europeans complain about capital punishment, they could be reminded that in 1945 several European states restored the death penalty because they saw it was the only fitting punishment for such evil as Nazism.
Iraqis could make the same argument with perfect truth.
For the foreseeable future, however, the United States will still be needed to support Iraqi democracy both against an increasingly desperate insurgency and through the early adolescent tantrums of a new liberal system of government.
Now is exactly the wrong time to declare victory and get out–precisely because victory is in sight and withdrawing would put it at risk.
Bush must therefore get ready to fight domestic political battles against those Democrats like Senator Edward Kennedy and others who are urging a quick U.S. withdrawal.
Some would clearly prefer Iraqi democracy to fail rather than hand a political victory to President Bush. That looks like very un-smart politics in the United States. It would be endless death and destruction in Baghdad.