Democracy and Delusion in Iraq

With voting already underway in Iraq we should harbor no illusion about the ultimate outcome -- the Iraqi Shias with the closest ties to Iran will secure the largest share of the votes. George Bush is right about one thing; this vote is likely to remake the face of the Middle East. Unfortunately, his vision that Iraq will become a launching pad for a new era of peace and understanding among the nations in the region is not only farfetched, but ignores what is actually taking place on the ground.

A few hundred miles to the west, the radical Muslim Brothers (spiritual kin of the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia) have secured an historic place in the Egyptian legislature. Despite intense pressure by the Mubarak government they rallied their supporters and got out the vote. At least they heeded Bush's call for democracy. On the northern border of Iraq, in Turkey, the Islamists also are on the upswing. And let's not forget Lebanon, where forces with close ties to Iran are consolidating power and influence. Remember, Hezbollah is no longer a rag tag band of terrorists, instead it has grown into a disciplined de facto Army of Lebanon.

We are unwilling to come to grips with a very simple truth -- the majority of people in the Middle East prefer an Islamic rather than a secular government. Economic development does not ensure a steady march towards a secular, diverse society. Heavens (irony intended) just look at us. Despite our economic prowess and alleged sophistication, religious fundamentalists in our own country have succeeded in bringing great pressure to bear on our government and our media.

So, what does all of this mean? In the coming year the Shia-led government in Iraq will flex its new muscle. They will expand beyond the two torture centers already discovered and press ahead with their campaign against the Sunnis. While there are some secular Shia who willingly mingle with Sunni neighbors, the Shia activists with the guns are religiously driven and intent on ensuring the new government pays proper homage to their particular faith.

Don't be surprised if we find ourselves helping out Al Zarqawi, the Jordanian Sunni who hates Shias more than he hates Americans. War can make strange bedfellows. Notwithstanding George Bush's cry that we can't have a timetable for withdrawal, the U.S. will start cutting and running from Iraq in January 2006. The current plan is for U.S. counter insurgency operations to be dramatically scaled back by next summer.

What we've failed to appreciate is that most people in the region believe that a country as large and as rich as the United States is actually executing a secret plan. In other words, the car bombings and chaos are, according to their own belief, part of a deliberate plan by us. They find it impossible to believe that we are genuinely confused, divided and deluded about what to do in Iraq.

As we exit Iraq in the coming months we must try to reinforce our ties to those Sunni and Shia Iraqis who are sincerely committed to living in a secular, tolerant society. Regrettably those souls are few and, in the coming years, will probably find it necessary to seek refuge in Europe from the sectarian war that will sweep Iraq.

We must also be mindful that our "exit" from Iraq will be along the supply line that runs south thru Kuwait. Whether we have to fight our way out of Iraq will be determined in part by whether the new Shia rulers believe we pose a threat to their position. Our ability to expose and liberate torture centers is likely to become more compromised as the new democracy in Iraq takes hold. Why? Because at the end of the day, a majority of Shias are likely to feel quite justified in torturing the Sunnis who had inflicted pain and suffering on the Shias for so many generations. If the blood lust takes hold we will just have to remind ourselves what a wonderful thing democracy is, particularly when a majority decides to act in what it perceives as its own best interest. Power to the people.


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