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Are There Any Lessons From Eastern Europe For Iraq?

For some years now, the U.S. has been attempting to establish a democracy in Iraq. Obviously, the effort is going very badly and public support for the war is evanescing before our eyes. Yesterday, another Republican Senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, joined Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in calling for a radical change of course, i.e., a draw-down of American forces followed by withdrawal.

At this point, even many supporters of the democratization effort might be satisfied by the emergence of any sort of government that could impose a semblance of order and keep the forces of Islamism at bay. We may not even get that. An abrupt U.S. pull-out might prompt a horrifically bloody war of all against all. It is difficult to see a silver lining in any of this. But as we stare into the abyss, we should also remember that history can be full of unexpected twists and turns.

In the early 1980’s, the USSR and the countries it dominated—all of them brutal, Communist police states—were trapped in what seemed like an immutable stasis. Two decades later, most of the countries of Eastern Europe are burgeoning democracies, and Russia itself, whatever backsliding is taking place under Vladimir Putin, is not the soul-numbing totalitarian edifice it once was.

How did such profound change come about? Aleksa Djilas, among the most brilliant and lucid intellectuals in Eastern Europe (and an occasional COMMENTARY contributor who writes from Belgrade), calls it “one of the most massive shifts in the balance of power that has ever occurred in peacetime,” which he traces to “change in standards of legitimacy,” as Communist authority was discredited, almost by domino effect, across the region.

This profound change had many sources, and one of them was the role played by heroic dissidents, who risked their freedom and their lives to bring liberty to their imprisoned countries. Is there an equivalent force within Iraq or within the broader Arab world? Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are attempting to build a new life under a new government in the face of murderous attacks by terrorist extremists of various stripes. Should we give up on our efforts to help them, or should we find another path? Is there another path? Or should we just call it quits?

In his recent lecture, “What We Can Learn From Dissidents Under Communism,” worth reading in its entirety, Djilas notes that [i]n spite of all its serious flaws, liberal democracy is the great masterpiece of Western political culture and it is a great blessing that it has spread into many other parts of the world. The West has a right and a duty to do its best to make it encompass the whole of mankind.”

Ringing words, but the question still remains: does any aspect of the East European experience apply to the Middle East? The problem of Eastern Europe, it turns out, was primarily one of regimes and not the society underneath. Is that true of the Middle East, or is the problem of the Arab world not only with the regimes but with the people?



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