Some years ago my guest on Firing Line was General Vernon Walters. He was a phenomenon who had had phenomenal experiences, among them interpreting for four different presidents in four different languages, and serving briefly as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He remarked, in passing, that no democratic government had ever initiated national aggression.
I was stunned by this statement, and as the exchange proceeded, attempted to run my skeptical memory over it. Surely it could not be so? But so — it is. And that revelation by General Walters orients us properly in the matter of the election in Iraq on Sunday.
Mostly, talk about the achievements of democracy is inflated. For one thing, baptism in democracy is not permanently orienting. It isn’t as if a democratic election acted as a magnet, pointing a nation resolutely and incorruptibly toward liberty. We can earn the right to vote, and the majority can use that right to deprive everyone, themselves included, of liberty.
This is not the moment to engage the pretensions of democrats who act as if popular elections guaranteed liberal laws. But it repays grateful thought to dwell on Walters’s point. How is it that self-governing countries decline to engage in national aggression?
It must follow that the mere democratic act has something of a sacramental character. What a boon for the countries that surround Iraq: Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. All that they would have to fear is the intoxication of their own peoples by the experience of Iraq. During the Cold War someone remarked that the difference between socialists in the Soviet Union and capitalists in the free world was this, that if a neighbor becomes wealthy, the capitalists who surround that neighbor will seek to imitate him. The communists would seek to undermine him. Mr. Bush has several times stressed his belief that a democratic Iraq would affect the political destinies of Iraq’s neighbors. This may be too hopeful, but this is the season to express our hopes.
There has been speculation on the matter of a critical figure. It was amusing that one analyst, reporting from Baghdad, said that, conceivably, the Iraqi vote could match the vote in the United States. In the presidential election of 2004, just over half (60.7 percent) of Americans voted. The case might be made that those who did were responding to the threats of our own terrorists. If it hadn’t been for words and deeds by Democrats, many Republicans would have stayed in bed.
That is the luxury of the state that takes self-government for granted. In Iraq, those who go to vote, especially in areas where the insurgents are active, are true democratic heroes. One observer said that it would be reasonable to anticipate 60 acts of terrorism on Sunday. Terrorists thrive on unpredictability. That is what gives them the great leverage they have. If we knew exactly where a terrorist would strike, the jeopardized could prepare for him, and vitiate or even abort his mission.
The other problem in Iraq reflects tribal divisions. If the Sunnis were to succeed in boycotting the election, that would be different from the failure to vote for fear of retaliation by the insurgents.
Whatever happens, it is a day of haunting significance. President Bush’s statement on Thursday that of course the United States military would withdraw if the new government requested it to do so is the perfect frame for a genuinely democratic exercise.
You can’t get, in Iraq, sophisticated demographics of a kind that will tell us how many failed to vote for fear of the insurgents, how many were motivated by tribal resentments. But one might hope that the European community would greet the events of Sunday with at least a measure of gratitude for what the United States has made possible.