A Pro-Democracy Democrat

A few days ago we directed waka waka waka readers to a Wall Street Journal piece by Bernard Lewis, in which he explained the psychological boost and doctrinal validation that a US abandonment of Iraq would give to our jihadist foes. Now that article is followed by a politically brave item by the Democrat Bob Kerrey, in which he makes several related points.

Kerrey tells us:

American lawmakers who are watching public opinion tell them to move away from Iraq as quickly as possible should remember this: Concessions will not work with either al Qaeda or other foreign fighters who will not rest until they have killed or driven into exile the last remaining Iraqi who favors democracy.

The key question for Congress is whether or not Iraq 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. The answer is emphatically “yes.”

This does not mean that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11; he was not. Nor does it mean that the war to overthrow him was justified–though I believe it was. It only means that a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq would hand Osama bin Laden a substantial psychological victory.

Those who argue that radical Islamic terrorism has arrived in Iraq because of the U.S.-led invasion are right. But they are right because radical Islam opposes democracy in Iraq. If our purpose had been to substitute a dictator who was more cooperative and supportive of the West, these groups wouldn’t have lasted a week.

You can read Kerrey’s essay in its entirety here.


  1. Kerrey is correct to note that “a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq would hand Osama bin Laden a substantial psychological victory.” However, he does not address the question of whether the costs of leaving are greater or lesser than the costs of staying. By remaining in Iraq, we lose lives, money, allies, moral stature, and credibility on a daily basis. We are occupying a country we had no business invading in the first place, and in my view that is far more damaging to our security than the harm which will surely come from our withdrawal. Nor does he show why our continued military presence should be any more effective in taming the insurgency than it has been before. It’s all well and good to say how awful things will be if they leave, but the fact is there are no good options, and he does not make the case why remaining would be the least bad option.

    Posted May 22, 2007 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Good points all, Peter.

    Whether or not such a case can indeed be made depends on the various weightings that are to be placed upon such factors as national security, the value of supporting democracy in the Middle East, the extent to which we want to take the fight to the enemy, the tactics that might be effective in such a fight, and the expense in “blood and treasure” (as well as in goodwill in Europe, etc.) that our engagement in Iraq is costing us.

    Such assessments, and the question of what actions are conducive to which goals, are the sort of thing about which reasonable people can and do differ widely. Kerrey’s point is to make sure that everyone understands what is at stake — regarding both the prospects for a democratic society in Iraq, and the emboldenment of the enemy — as we debate a US withdrawal.

    Kerrey writes:

    American liberals need to face these truths: The demand for self-government was and remains strong in Iraq despite all our mistakes and the violent efforts of al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias to disrupt it. Al Qaeda in particular has targeted for abduction and murder those who are essential to a functioning democracy: school teachers, aid workers, private contractors working to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, police officers and anyone who cooperates with the Iraqi government. Much of Iraq’s middle class has fled the country in fear.

    With these facts on the scales, what does your conscience tell you to do?

    Again, reasonable people may differ.

    Posted May 22, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Another problem with Kerrey’s argument is that he looks at Iraq in isolation from the rest of the region. Interestingly, he does not mention the scariest possible outcome, where Iraq disintegrates and Saudi Arabia sends troops in to protect the Sunnis, Iran sends in troops to protect Shia, other regional players flex their muscles, and all Hell breaks loose. However, he also ignores what American policy is doing elsewhere in the region and its ramifications for what we ought to do in Iraq.

    For example, Pakistan is led by a dictator who seized power and refused to relinquish it to a democratic government as he promised. He essentially has declared martial law, imprisoned his political opponents, suppressed free speech, etc. He remains in power because of his support from the military, which we fund to the tune of roughly one billion dollars a year. Initially the money was for his army to find Al Qaeda and especially bin Laden, who will probably be captured by the Pakistanis about the same time as O.J. Simpson finds the real killer. However, we send the money now to prop up Musharraf’s dictatorship because of the fear that whomever replaces him will be worse for American interests. You could make similar arguments regarding our policy towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

    Now put yourself in the position of, say, a Saudi Sunni and imagine how you would feel watching American boots in Iraq purportedly in support of democracy while at the same time crushing democracy in Pakistan because supporting the dictator in power is better suited to American interests. What credence would you give American claims? Let’s not pretend that our involvement in Iraq is to implant Jeffersonian democracy in the Middle East, but rather call it what it is: the use of military force to protect perceived security interests. The question is now that we are there, what is the course of action which will create the least further damage to ourselves and the Iraqis. In my view, that would be to ask for a referendum among Iraqis on whether we should leave in the short-, intermediate-, or long-term future, with specific dates for each choice. I think we owe them nothing less, but we also owe them nothing more.

    Posted May 22, 2007 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Well, the fact is that Iraq is unique in the region in quite a number of ways.

    I agree that a referendum is not an unreasonable approach, and I wonder why there hasn’t been more discussion of it. Perhaps the feeling is that it would give the Shia (widely regarded as Iranian proxies) an opportunity to consolidate too much power too soon.

    You seem to reject the possibility that fostering democracy in Iraq might in fact be congruent with protecting security interests.

    I entirely agree that Musharraf and the Saudis are getting the best of both worlds here: as soon as we were to leave, Iraq would become their problem, not ours, and a mighty big one too. I’m surprised that we aren’t using that uncomfortable fact as more of a lever for freedom than we are. But I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, given how things have been managed so far. We must consider some practicalities, though: however idealistic we may be about a democratic Islamic world, we can only do so much at once, and Musharraf might simply be a lesser evil at the moment than any likely alternative. He is having considerable difficulties at the moment, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if we were offering covert support to the democratic elements that are holding his feet to the fire, thereby helping to rein in his dictatorial ambitions while allowing him, as a useful ally, to remain in charge.

    Posted May 22, 2007 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

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