Ever found yourself fuming about a bad government policy? Probably. Ever been asked to join a private army to fight it? Probably not.
Because we live in the world’s oldest democracy, we know that authority is not bestowed by a gun, but by the consent of the governed. And because we’re a politically mature people who take the rule of law for granted, we sometimes forget what we also know: that an elected government isn’t just entitled but obliged to exercise authority. Otherwise, it’s not doing its duty.
The Iraqis are not yet politically mature. How could they be? They endured a dictator who moved heaven and earth to make sure they couldn’t be. Going further back, Iraqis have hardly known the rule of law since Caliph Al-Mansour founded Baghdad in 762. What they’ve known is conquest. Even before Western colonialism came into the picture, Baghdad was captured in 945, 1055, 1258 (when it was one of the two biggest cities in the world and the Mongols killed as many as 800,000 of its inhabitants), 1339, 1401, 1410, 1508, 1534, 1623, and 1638. If you grew up in Iraq–or many other places in the Arab world–you might think an authority is just someone with a gun. Or on the other hand you might think that no one with a gun could have any moral standing or should have any authority.
Iraqis and many others in the Arab world need our help in learning what the rule of law looks like.
That’s what we came to Iraq to do: to throw out a dictator and set the groundwork for a government of laws, not men. The Iraqis need to see that a legitimate government has a monopoly on force within its borders. Iraqis need to see the American armed forces prevent armed thugs from hijacking the political process in their country. The decent majority knows this. What they want from us is not an invitation to anarchy, but the security in which a fledgling democracy can grow. As one Iraqi told frequent NRO contributor Steve Vincent recently, “If you’re going to occupy us, occupy us!”
This means rule and make it clear that we alone rule until June 30. We must show zero tolerance for private militias and motor-mouthed and ultimately cowardly opportunists like Muqtada al-Sadr who terrorize their fellow citizens and incite murder while hiding behind the protection of a sacred site. We owe this to the Iraqi people we are trying to protect.
We’ve been too reluctant to make it clear that the United States became the only source of legitimate authority in Iraq by overthrowing the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, just as the allies became the only source of legitimate authority in postwar Germany by overthrowing the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. Would we have been helping the German people in 1946 if we’d allowed armed thugs associated with the defeated regime to assume control of a major city, as we have in Fallujah, or tolerated religious fanatics inciting violence, as we have with Muqtada al-Sadr?
We have a lot to be proud of in Iraq. We did something very few governments–and no Arab governments–have ever done. We accepted another very different people as our brothers and sisters, as individuals just as worthy of freedom and justice as we are. Every day, we are showing the Arab world that we hold the lives of the law-abiding Iraqi population to be worth just as much as American lives.
The Americans who have died in Iraq and may be dying as you read this have not given their lives in vain any more than if they had died protecting New York City from a terrorist gang. They have died protecting us. The best defense for American democracy is the respect of its sworn enemies, the Muqtada al-Sadrs of the world.
And if the sacrifice of American lives is to make a lasting difference to the future of the Iraqi people–if peace is to follow war–we must not flinch from the exercise of force in upholding the rule of law. The Iraqis deserve no less from us.
–Ann Marlowe is a New York writer who has written about Afghan politics for NRO and the New York Post.