Norman Podhoretz correctly and concisely names the war we have been in, consciously or not, since well before September 11, 2001. He accurately depicts the failures of many in America and Europe to understand the nature of the Islamofascist threat, let alone formulate strategies to deal with it. He identifies the terrorist threat posed in Iraq, and places it in the larger context of what will unquestionably be a “long, hard slog.”

Well and good, but let’s cut to the chase: what does any of this have to do with promoting democracy? My response: in the short run, very little, and in the longer run, who knows?

First, I think our emphasis must be more on liberty than democracy, which a careful reading of President Bush’s speeches shows is his real emphasis. To state the obvious, liberty is not the same as democracy, the first being freedom from government, the second being one way to select governments. Many Muslim societies—and many non-Muslim societies, while we are on the subject—need the former more urgently than the latter.

Second, “democracy” is a word used so frequently and so ritualistically that, like many incantations, it loses meaning over time. Parliamentary democracies, for example, merge executive and legislative powers in the hands of one electoral majority, something the framers of our Constitution rejected as dangerous to liberty. Moreover, proportional-representation systems, especially those with national party lists, are not as reflective of electorates as are single-member districts.

Is Europe, where these approaches predominate, as “democratic” as the United States? I think not. Moreover, democracy is not necessarily an end point in politics, but perhaps only a way station. Via the European Union, “Europe” may be passing from a pre-democratic feudal society to a post-democratic bureaucratic one, parts of the continent having sojourned only relatively briefly as actual democracies. Russia may be a place where democracy was a long time in coming but only a short time in going. China, home of the original Mandarins, may never get there. These are hardly models for the Middle East or other Muslim lands.

Third, how feasible is “democracy” right now? Writing in COMMENTARY in November 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick rebuked the foreign-policy initiatives of the Carter administration by citing John Stuart Mill’s conditions for representative government:

One, that the people should be willing to receive it; two, that they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation; three, that they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them.

And Kirkpatrick went on to observe:

In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government’s effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.

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Fourth, having a Burkean disposition, I shy away from abstract theory. Take three specific cases: Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan.

Iraq does not appear to measure up to the Mill-Kirkpatrick standard. Its Shiites and Kurds are settling scores, retaliating for decades of brutal Baathist rule. Sunnis, acutely aware of their minority status, are engaging in terrorism precisely to prevent scores from being settled. Meanwhile, Shiites are fighting their own internecine terrorist battles, facilitated by Iran.

Once again, Kirkpatrick called the shot: “leaders of all major sectors of the society must agree to pursue power only by legal means, must eschew (at least in principle) violence, theft, and fraud, and must accept defeat when necessary.” Doesn’t sound like Baghdad.

My solution in Iraq is prosaic: praise democracy, but pass the ammunition. Critics of the Bush Doctrine, unjustifiably, will gauge its success almost entirely according to the outcome in Iraq. To preserve the doctrine beyond January 19, 2009, American interests require that no part of Iraq become a base for terrorism. If that can be done with a democratic Iraq, wonderful; if it has to be done with less than Jeffersonian purity, fine.

Next, Iran’s vigorous pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons is a grave long-term threat to the United States, Israel, and our worldwide interests. Four-plus years of American deference to Europe’s predilection for negotiation has brought Iran that much closer to its goal, and yielded precious few options to prevent it. Of these, unfortunately, only regime change in Tehran or the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program has any realistic prospect of success. Both are grim choices, to be sure. In these very pages, Norman Podhoretz has cogently argued for military action (“The Case for Bombing Iran,” June 2007), eschewing the blossoming of democracy’s flower children in favor of cold steel.

In Pakistan, finally, so far the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons, Pervez Musharraf’s government is under siege by civilian politicians clamoring for a return to democracy. Pakistan’s history is replete with corrupt and incompetent civilian politicians, replaced periodically by the military’s “steel skeleton,” but with neither experience yielding especially happy results. Musharraf is rightly faulted for many things, especially inadequately purging the army of Islamic militants and a listless pursuit of al Qaeda, but does anyone seriously argue that politicians will better harness Pakistan’s military?

With a nuclear arsenal up for grabs, the stakes in Pakistan are high. Bolstered by the Bush administration’s evident support, the politicians continue to try to force Musharraf out, which likely will be hailed as a triumph of democracy. That may be, but I am far from certain that elected civilians running Islamabad will make us safer from a loss of command-and-control over those nuclear weapons, or from the danger that they will come into terrorist hands. This is a risky way to experiment with democratic theory.

In prior world wars, we concentrated on victory first, not the purity of our allies. Similarly, I’d rather win World War IV distastefully than lose it for the sake of purity. I actually think Norman Podhoretz would agree.

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