Every time our smirking, swaggering, stubborn, dishonest president promises "to stay the course" in Iraq I feel sick, especially when, dressed in a sport shirt and standing comfortably under the blue Texas sky, he comments on the deaths in Iraq. Young men and women are dying, being maimed, suffering psychological trauma which will haunt them for the rest of their lives. All the president can do is mouth cliches.
What does "stay the course" mean? At one time it meant "regime change." Then it came to mean "weapons of mass destruction," then it meant "war on terror." Now apparently it means an Iraq that is "democratic and free." Even for someone of the president's limited knowledge of history, that is nonsense. How many Arab countries are currently both free and democratic -- from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia? Not a one. Does that not suggest that it would be impossible for the United States to impose on Arab culture what we mean by freedom and democracy? In fact, how many Muslim countries can boast of Western-style civil society and democracy? Turkey, maybe, at least up to a point. Iran? Pakistan? Bangladesh? Indonesia? Does that suggest that in its present form Islamic culture is not conducive to what we mean by democracy?
Have Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice told that to the president?
In Iraq even as the president babbles about "staying the course," the Shiite majority is struggling to create an Islamic republic on the Iranian model, more moderate, perhaps, but still a theocratic state in which the mullahs have supreme power -- and women have almost no rights at all. Indeed "staying the course" seems to mean fighting Iran's war against Iraq with Chinese money (which pays for the part of the national debt the war is piling up through the purchase of American treasury notes).
I do not deny that there are elements in the Islamic heritage that are compatible with a civil and democratic society. I insist, however, that these elements do not dominate today in any Islamic country, again with the partial exception of Turkey. But President Bush is nonetheless going to create by sheer willpower and the blood of American troops such a society in Iraq?
Democracy does not mean the same thing to Muslims as it does to Westerners, it will be argued, just as Mr. Putin says that it does not mean the same thing to Russians as it does to Americans. Fair enough, I suppose, but there is no evidence that the president comprehends this fact. Most Americans believe that real democracy is something like our own. They believe that the president is promising that in Iraq. It is a foolish, ignorant, stupid promise.
Democracy does not mean merely that the majority of voters elect their rulers. It also means the rights of the minority are protected. It means freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to seek redress of grievance, an impartial and independent judiciary, it means no street violence after an election, the right to presumed innocence and to appeal court decisions, respect for those who are different from you, protection of property and contracts, a stable and generally accepted civic culture, civilian control of the military and the police -- all the precious and priceless freedoms and rights which we Americans take for granted -- however imperfectly they may be protected or honored.
Majority rule, without these kinds of safeguards, turns into tyranny, total power invested in the monarch or the general or the cleric or the caudillo or maximum leader or whoever else claims at gunpoint to embody the will of the people. No matter how long Bush "stays the course" in Iraq, the history of that part of the world suggests that the end result of our "regime change" will be something like that. For this, American blood is being spilled?
Western democracy, far from perfect, is still the best there is. One may call what goes on in Cuba or Russia or China or Egypt or Algeria or Pakistan or Indonesia democracy not in the Western style, if one wishes. But the president should not deceive the American people. What will happen in Iraq will be very much like what existed before Saddam came to power and eventually lead, in the name of the will of the people, to another tyrant who will rule with an automatic weapon in his hand.