Politics & Policy

Preoccupied with Democracy in Iraq

Like Bush, Bob Kerrey is courageous, and confusing, on fighting radical Islam.

Kudos to former Senator Bob Kerrey.

The Nebraska Democrat has written a stirring opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, eloquently arguing that we must defeat al Qaeda in Iraq. Surely, it will win him no fans among the hard Left that today controls his party.

Kerrey boldly holds the mirror up to the surrender lobby. “Iraq,” he writes, “has become the primary battleground against the same radical Islamists who declared war on the U.S. in the 1990s and who have carried out a series of terrorist operations including 9/11.” He demands that we stand and fight them. The unilateral withdrawal demanded by leading Democrats is intolerable. It would, he correctly argues, grant al Qaeda a tremendous victory — even as it underscores that it is “no wonder today we Democrats are not trusted with the reins of power.”

In truth, Kerrey has said out loud the words Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the party’s putative 2008 standard-bearer, would calculate she should say — and try to persuade Americans she actually believed — if we were in general-election season. After all, as Kerrey posits, the present military phase in Iraq represents the type of idealistic interventionism over which Democrats traditionally swoon: the use of force to defend humanitarian ideals. But alas, we are pre-primaries. Clinton would be toast if she dared defend (let alone embrace, as Kerrey does) the war she was for before she was against — her vote in favor of removing the dictator having come only five years after her husband made regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States.

It is good, in any event, to be reminded that there are still Democrats like Kerrey and Joe Lieberman around. Would that they were at the wheel instead of in the wilderness.

Still, there are dots that Kerrey, a former 9/11 Commission member, can’t bring himself to connect. Dots that lead us to the crossroads of U.S. counterterrorism policy.


Most of Kerrey’s brief is a paean to democracy building. The righteous casus belli in Iraq, he asserts, was that the regime posed an intolerable threat in the post-9/11 reality. But now, “[t]he war to overthrow Saddam Hussein is over. What remains is a war to overthrow the government of Iraq.” For Kerrey, that is a war we are equally obliged to fight — a war to defend nascent “democracy” against forces that would strangle it in the cradle.

Indeed, Kerrey, now dean at the New School in New York City, was moved to write this piece because he was disturbed at his students’ apparent historical ignorance about struggles for freedom. To his chagrin, they were palpably receptive, during graduation ceremonies, to a stark declaration by the courageous Iranian dissident, Shirin Ebadi: “Democracy cannot be imposed with military force.” Oh yes it can, Kerrey counters, despondent that we “seem to forget the good U.S. arms have done in imposing democracy on countries like Japan and Germany, or Bosnia more recently.” (Emphasis added.)

Tracing the arc from World War II to the Battle of Baghdad, Kerrey is the very echo of the Bush administration. Democracy is used interchangeably with self-government —though the two are far from the same thing. “The demand for self-government,” as he puts it, is what “remains strong in Iraq despite all our mistakes and the violent efforts of al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias to disrupt it.” In Kerrey’s view, we are duty-bound to fight al Qaeda not just because it is our mortal enemy but because it “has targeted for abduction and murder those who are essential to a functioning democracy[.]”

Yet, Kerrey’s focus on self-government — like the administration’s cognate emphasis on popular elections — is quintessentially about process. A process whose urging is so usefully high-minded that proponents are absolved of the burden to address deeper questions of substance: Can a resolutely Islamic culture reasonably be expected to become a democratic culture any time soon? What are we to make of Iraq, where the popular process has thus far elevated fundamentalists and enshrined the centrality of Sharia law in its new constitution? When one is on the side of the angels, there is evidently no need to tarry over such details.

When Kerrey does, at last, get around to the requirements of “a functioning democracy,” he tellingly mentions not only the architects — “school teachers, aid workers, private contractors working to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, police officers and anyone who cooperates with the Iraqi government.” As for the architecture, he is mum. What about separation of mosque and state? Equal rights for non-Muslims and women? Freedom of conscience? What about the country’s peerlessly influential cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issuing fatwas calling for the murder of homosexuals? These, I suppose, are matters for another day … a day I’d be stunned ever to see.

Fine, then. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Americans should be animated by an Iraqi self-determination process, not a substantive American vision of what freedom means. Does Kerrey really think such a “democracy” is worth Americans fighting for? Well, maybe not. For after singing its praises, he abruptly shifts course. “Finally,” he winds up,

Jim Webb [(D.-VA)] said something during his [successful] campaign for the Senate that should be emblazoned on the desks of all 535 members of Congress: You do not have to occupy a country in order to fight the terrorists who are inside it. Upon that truth I believe it is possible to build what doesn’t exist today in Washington: a bipartisan strategy to deal with the long-term threat of terrorism.

Hard to quarrel with that. If Iraq proves anything, it is that we Americans lack the patience for long, difficult occupations — especially if our leaders fail to convince us that our own security, as opposed to a better life for the occupied, is at stake. Barring a perception-altering reprise of 9/11, U.S. counterterrorism for the foreseeable future will have to be about suppressing radical Islam without sticking around to see that the swamps stay drained — something which, by the way, would call for a ruthlessness I frankly doubt we have the stomach for.


But here’s something else Kerrey doesn’t confront. Maybe he’s right that you don’t have to occupy a country to fight terrorism. But you do have to occupy a country to, as he puts it, impose democracy. And, as we’ve seen, the forcible imposition of democracy is Kerrey’s clarion call.

Let’s take the Japanese, German, and Bosnian democracy “impositions” Kerrey so approvingly cites. After taking four years to defeat Japan, the United States occupied it for seven years until 1952. Beyond that, Iwo Jima and Okinawa remained under U.S. occupation for another two decades. And today, more than 60 years after World War II, over 45,000 members of the U.S. armed forces — nearly a third the size of the total force we’ve committed to a hot war in Iraq — remain stationed in Japan.

The occupation of Germany, which formed the lines for its partition, similarly continued long after the war. On the Allied side, it was pervasive for a decade, until 1955. Berlin, the frontline of the Cold War, stood occupied until 1990. Reunified Germany, meanwhile, is still home to U.S. forces.

Finally, in still-troubled Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO troops, including a sizable U.S. contingent, were an occupying force for nine years, until 2004. When they finally left, they handed the reins not to Bosnians but to European Union forces — forces that continue to this day to govern because the country is not yet sustainable on its own. Not as a democracy.

Fighting radical Islam and forging democracy are incessantly presented as one in the same. When the administration talks about “victory” in Iraq, it speaks simultaneously of routing al Qaeda, ending internecine Muslim strife, and bolstering the Maliki government. These goals, however, are importantly different. Those differences can no longer be glossed over by shallow rhetoric that conflates noble causes. Americans are seeing through it. The low approval ratings for the war and its execution are directly proportionate to the public’s perception of America’s security interests, not Iraq’s.

Yes, fighting al Qaeda is paramount. But when it comes to ending violence between sects whose opposing militants kill Americans when they are not killing each other, and when it comes to propping up a new regime that seems awfully cozy with Iran when it is not openly lauding Hezbollah, our national attitude ranges narrowly from pessimism to indifference. A war that Americans have come to regard, rightly or wrongly, as more geared toward Iraqi self-determination than al Qaeda suppression is a war for which American support was certain to flag. We did not, after all, occupy Germany and Japan to evangelize about the glories of freedom. We occupied them because they nearly defeated us in a war of national survival: The American people, fully invested back then in victory, understood instinctively that we had to stay until the peril was extinguished.

Senator Kerrey is a principled liberal. Only a principled liberal could so vividly capture the cynical irony here. Though conceived as vital to our national security, the Iraqi chapter in the war on terror has been conducted, since Saddam’s expulsion, as a Wilsonian experiment. It assumes — against all reason and experience — that we’re all one human family, that everyone craves freedom, that everyone would use freedom the same enlightened way, and that we, the superpower, have a special obligation to make it happen. If the experiment were being conducted by liberals, rather than by George W. Bush, Democrats would be its staunchest defenders (and conservatives its wariest skeptics).

Iraq, however, is a frustrating slog precisely because it is an exercise in democracy building, not mere jihadist repulsion. Sen. Kerrey wants to have both Bush’s grandiose democracy project and Webb’s Spartan terrorist smacking … all without occupying anyone. It can’t be done.

We want, of course, to believe that we can democratize Islamic radicals into submission — it’s much more congenial than killing them or cooling their jets in Guantanamo Bay so we can get the intelligence needed to kill them before they kill us. But it’s a fantasy. The cold record shows that jihadists are much better at using democracy to pursue their ends than democracy is at quelling jihadist pathologies.

But let’s say you can’t or won’t believe that. Let’s ignore that jihadists planned 9/11 for months in the safety of Germany, Spain, and the United States. Let’s pretend that they haven’t attacked New York, Virginia, Madrid, and London because democratic freedoms made those places easy operating environments. The stubborn fact remains: If democracy is going to be your counterterrorism strategy, you’d better be ready to occupy. To occupy for decades in places where it is anything but clear that real democratic culture will take root despite your best efforts.

Senator Kerrey is to be congratulated for admonishing his party to stop denigrating a war its traditions counsel supporting. But if the politicizing ever does end, some adult reality will need facing — and not just by Democrats.

Much of the Islamic world does not want true democracy — and that’s by no means just the militants. If we really respected these Muslim millions, as we say we do, we’d concede that they’re not ignorant. They have, instead, made a different choice. They have chosen a submissive path, anathema to our sensibilities. If democracy is why we fight, then long occupation will necessarily be the price. And the attendant blood and treasure cry out for the compelling case no one has yet made: The case that democracy is likely to defeat jihadism. Faith may move mountains, but it is not a national-security strategy.

On the other hand, if occupation is a price we have neither the cause nor the will to pay, we must shun democracy imposition. Our finite attention should instead be focused on determining what measures are necessary to eradicate jihadist networks, and on bluntly considering how such steps square with our regnant international law infrastructure — the legacy of a world that no longer exists … if it ever did.


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