In a few days, millions of Iraqis will brave terrorist threats to take part in historic elections. Some will undoubtedly pay for that quiet heroism with their lives, but damn if they're not going to do it anyway.
There's something undeniably moving in the risk they're about to take. It ought to inspire us. But it also ought to humble us.
That determination to vote even under dangerous conditions confirms something President Bush said in his second Inaugural Address. "Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul," the president said. In that speech, he also recommitted the nation to lead the fight against tyranny, no matter where it might be found.
"Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world," he said. "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Words like that stir something romantic in the American breast. They are a call to the very highest of American idealism, to our self-image as a nation fulfilling its destiny as the champion of liberty and defender of the oppressed. But because words like that are heard far outside our borders, they also raise a disturbing question:
Are they true? And if they aren't, what false expectations are we raising?
In the past, the United States has dangled the prospect of freedom in front of the Iraqi people, only to snatch it away when it no longer suited our own selfish purposes. We may not like to admit that truth, but it is truth nonetheless. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, we urged the Shiites and the Kurds to rise up against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, then changed our minds and left them to be slaughtered by the thousands and pushed into mass graves.
Even earlier, in the mid-'80s, Iraq's Kurds rose up in rebellion and Saddam suppressed their revolt with the infamous "gassing of his own people." A few weeks later, a presidential envoy by the name of Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Baghdad to publicly shake Saddam's hand and reassure him that he enjoyed our continued support.
Now, 20 years later, we have invaded Iraq, toppled its government, dismantled its army and promised to make it a democratic beacon to the rest of the Middle East. Iraqi voters and politicians are risking their lives on the gamble that this time, we really mean it.
But do we?
In a recent Fox News poll, Americans were asked whether "it is more important for the United States to stay in Iraq to win the war, or get out of Iraq to end the war." Responses were split almost evenly, with 46 percent believing that American troops should stay and 45 percent supporting withdrawal. In addition, a slew of new polls report that a growing majority of Americans now believe the invasion was not worthwhile.
Other, less official indicators may be even more telling. A week ago, an opinion piece advocating the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was posted on the freerepublic.com Web site, which is frequented by some of the most belligerent and right-wing of President Bush's supporters. Of the 30 or so readers who responded to the piece, the overwhelming majority agreed that U.S. troops should be brought home right after the Iraqi election. Only one respondent urged staying the course.
The truth is that no nation is capable of sustaining a long war on the basis of idealism. War is so costly, both in resources and lives, that it can only be sustained when a nation's direct interest, even survival, is at stake.
It's no accident, for example, that our government's interest in bringing democracy to other countries seems to rise in direct proportion to how much oil lies beneath their territory.
In Iraq, our mistakes have trapped us in a race against time. If public support for this war disappears before a strong, stable government can be created, as seems possible, the consequences for ourselves and the Iraqis would be enormous. False idealism — or idealism unleavened by reality — will have exacted a very heavy price.
Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
© 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution