Today marks the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi urban areas, the result of a deadline contained in the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) that the Bush administration negotiated and the Obama administration embraced. It is a milestone on the road to Iraqi sovereignty and a useful moment, I think, to consider three widespread — and to some extent inter-related — arguments that were made about Iraq in recent years.
The first is that the difficulties in Iraq proved that the underlying theory behind President Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” was wrong. It was said that the effort to promote liberty in the Arab world was a fool’s errand; the cultural soil was too hard and forbidding. There is no existing undemocratic culture that will allow liberty to succeed. Some peoples and cultures are destined for despotism and unsuited for self-government. Tribal and sectarian allegiances are much stronger than national identity, especially in an artificial state like Iraq. Elections merely deepened sectarian ties and brought radicals to power. They are worse than useless. The 2005 “Arab Spring” was a mirage. Et cetera. But then the wheel of time turned again. As Michael Gerson has written:
Now spring is returning. January’s local elections in Iraq favored secular nationalists instead of clerical parties. In Lebanon, Hezbollah was defeated in an open and vigorous vote. Kuwaiti women have been elected to parliament for the first time. And in Iran, brave women and men have demonstrated that democracy, not just nihilism, counts martyrs in the Muslim world… Taken together — a constitutional Iraqi democracy, a powerful reform movement in Iran , democratic achievements from the Gulf sheikdoms to Lebanon — this is the greatest period of democratic progress in the history of the region. Given consistent outbreaks, it seems clear that the broader Middle East is not immune to the democratic infection.
The democratic uprising in Iran touched people in a particularly deep way. Protest signs written in English, asking “Where Is My Vote?” started springing up. Supporting democratic aspirations in oppressed lands, which was passé during the last few years, is once again fashionable. Joan Baez posted a message on her Web site, with a video of her “We Shall Overcome” dedicated to the people of Iran. Jon Bon Jovi also did a duet in Farsi with exiled Iranian singer Andy Madadian; they are singing a new version of “Stand By Me,” the purpose of which is to send “a musical message of worldwide solidarity” to the Iranian people. People are rediscovering the virtues of liberty.
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