Why Are We in Iraq? For Our Own Good

“This is the famous city of Baghdad, the home of sweetness! She lies beyond the assaults of winter, sleeping in the shade of her roses in an eternal Spring, with flowers and gardens and the murmur of many streams!” That description, from the Arabian Nights, does not leap to mind today. Grant that newsmen look for bad news; their task is not hard.

In the midst of daily murders, Iraq plans to hold elections for a transitional national assembly on Jan. 30, though voting may be hampered or prevented in the provinces where violence is concentrated. The disaffected provinces are strongholds of Iraq’s Sunni minority. Yet if Sunni areas lose their chance to vote, Sunnis will be underrepresented in the assembly, making them all the more disaffected. Should elections therefore be postponed?

A friend in a high place has been having discussions in Amman with Sunni tribal chiefs, trying to woo pragmatists. All these gentleman want, he says, is law and order. (In the old days in Iraq, that meant that the majority Shiites obeyed the law, while the Sunnis gave the orders.) When the chiefs get down to specifics, they are very specific indeed. Under Saddam, they had all the economic perks that were not engrossed by Saddam’s family-car dealerships and the like. They would like these arrangements to continue.

Deals make the world go round. At the outset of our Civil War, Charles Francis Adams, John’s grandson, was named ambassador to Britain. He went to the Oval Office to discuss his assignment with President Lincoln. Lincoln shook his hand, then turned immediately to the Secretary of State and said, “I have settled the Chicago Post Office.” Patronage was being passed out; the world could wait. If a little boodle will help slow down the murder rate now, then hand it out.

But the terrorists themselves are not playing for such low stakes. They want the return of a totalitarian/Islamist state with themselves in power. (Even Saddam in his jail cell may hope to come back; equally strange things have happened.) In their minds, postponed elections are simply a step to that goal. After the first postponement would come a second; then a direct political deal with the murderers themselves-a Weimar-like coalition government which they could subvert.

Because that must not happen, the terrorists and the would-be car dealers who are willing to string along with them should know that elections have been held during civil wars a lot bloodier than this one. Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 while the entire Confederacy was in rebellion. The war ended in 1865, but the southern states were not fully reintegrated into the nation’s political life for another decade. And maybe they were reintegrated too soon, since voting restrictions and Jim Crow laws kept southern blacks down until the mid–20th century. We mean to leave Iraq in something like good shape, and if the Sunnis will not play well with others, they won’t play at all until they learn.

We are in Iraq for our own good. Saddam Hussein was an infection ever ready to spread. He harbored terrorists and paid for terrorism in Israel. He shot at American airplanes patrolling the no-fly zone. He plotted to murder a former President (George H.W. Bush on a visit to Kuwait). He invaded, without cause, an entire nation in the hope of dominating the world’s oil supply. We once thought we could make use of him, when we encouraged him to invade Iran. We learned, through bitter experience, that we couldn’t. He wanted weapons of mass destruction and had tried to build them. All the world thought he had them, and he would not allay our suspicions. One day we may find the remnants of his programs, dispersed in Syria or Iran. But maybe it would be better if he had had no traces of W.M.D. at all. Then the rogues of the world would know that they have to err well on the side of good behavior. Colonel Qaddafi seems to have learned that lesson.

We are also in Iraq for the good of Iraqis. What, they might ask, is so good about the post-Saddam world, with its attacks on markets, its ambushes of policemen, its assassinations of political figures? And it will get worse as election day comes, with the murder of voters. New Yorkers complain when the line at P.S. Whatever is long. Suppose the people in line were shot up by Republicans, the Marijuana Reform Party or some other disgruntled faction?

Yet the peace of Saddam’s world was the peace of the tomb. Its violence was the violence of hell: Athletes tortured for not winning soccer games; brides raped, then killed for catching the eye of Uday (or was it Qusay?); Kurds in mountains villages and Arabs in the marshes, harried and slaughtered for being less tractable than Sunni car dealers. This was a world worth ending. Maybe all Iraqis are not grateful to the United States for doing so; one of the greatest insults in any culture is help. That’s fine. We don’t want Iraq to be the 51st state; we want it to be its own state. People want a say in their own rule, as the lines at polling places wherever some old despotism has cracked prove. If the people’s say can be real, and if their rights can be safeguarded, then they should have a chance to try it. Who knows what effects an honest vote will have? Do Iranians like meaningless elections? Do Syrians and Saudis like none? Jan. 30 could be a cheaper engine of regional transformation than half a dozen invasions.

These hopes do not commit the United States to establishing republicanism everywhere. How could we do such a thing? But realism and modesty do not mean that we should not do anything anywhere. When our interests and our justice coincide, we should welcome the conjunction, and do the best we can.