Iraq: The right idea after all
WASHINGTON -- "Bush was right" is not a view frequently expressed in the New York Times. But, there it was, in Thomas Friedman's March 10 column: "Former President George W. Bush's gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right."
Friedman was referring to the elections that took place this week in Iraq. Marred by violence and delivering an outcome that is still unclear, the Iraqi elections have nevertheless been received as good news for democratic consolidation in Iraq. They have been extensively covered in the United States, less so in Europe. In the run-up to the elections, a group of authors from Newsweek wrote, " €¦ [I]t should be understood - now, almost seven hellish years later - that something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East."
This is hardly a moment for triumphalism. The success of this election, the long-run tenacity of representative government in Iraq, and the impact such success might have on the broader Middle East, remain uncertain. Nor is this the time to declare that, in Iraq, the ends justified the means.
This is, though, a moment to reflect on what these elections might mean in the transatlantic context.
U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq without a clear United Nations mandate, and with no consensus on the threat Iraq presented, precipitated a crisis in transatlantic relations. Substantial efforts by President Bush in his second term--including attendance at U.S.-EU summits and frequent conversations with European counterparts--were well-received by European leaders and helped restore a more constructive tenor, but European publics did not pick up on that.
Europe welcomed President Barack Obama's election and his efforts to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, Obama had opposed the Iraq invasion. Obama's election was attributable in large measure to the economic crisis, but one element in both the 2006 congressional elections and 2008 presidential election was that a majority of the American people had joined in the European view that Iraq was a "bad war."
After this fairly comprehensive rejection of the Iraq war, what is it that President Bush may have been right about, in the view of Thomas Friedman, Newsweek, and others?
Certainly not about the idea that any culture, Iraqi or another, can be easily brought to embrace representative government. Certainly not the notion that elections are the only requirement for, and measure of, good governance. Certainly not an approach whereby unilateral strength is taken to obviate the necessity for vigorous diplomacy among like-minded nations.
But Bush was right about this, in his second inaugural address at the start of what would be a terrible year in Iraq: "[E]very man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."
President Obama drew from the same basic convictions in his own words in Cairo last June: "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law €¦; government that is transparent €¦; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere."
The ideas and beliefs that have led Europe and its former North American colonies (as well as our friends Down Under) to create the most accountable governments in history, with the greatest regard for human rights, are what President Bush was right about, as was President Obama. These ideas have spread beyond the regions of Europe and North America to become the norms of government in most lands, sometimes as authentic governing principles and sometimes only as rhetorical decoys to obscure tyranny. But they are norms. The Iraqi elections should assure us that we are right to support these ideas, even as the experience in Iraq has made painfully clear that the means we choose to support them--the question that divided Europe and America in Iraq--must be weighed very carefully.
Joseph R. Wood is a Senior Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.