Wall Street Journal features Commentary by IRI Chairman
Iraq’s Democracy Takes Shape
The Wall Street Journal
By John McCain
The mood in Baghdad is tense these days. Groups of Iraqis are struggling for control of the country. They are harshly denouncing their rivals. Passions are flaring, and the anger is visceral. But unlike recent years, this Iraqi fight for power is waged not through murder and oppression but argument and compromise. Democracy has come to Iraq.
The March 7 election was a triumph for Iraq—and for the United States. Though the votes are still being counted, a few things are clear. The election was largely free and fair. Sectarianism still colors Iraqi politics, but it is being checked by more diverse, pragmatic alignments. Candidates with secular, nationalist or moderate religious views mostly prevailed over sectarian extremists. Coalitions favorable to the U.S. mostly prevailed over those backed by Iran. It is undeniable that a real and uniquely Iraqi democracy is taking shape.
And yet it was only recently that conventional wisdom held quite the opposite—that Iraq was an artificial country, condemned by ethnic and sectarian hatreds to anarchy or tyranny. The implied alternative was to let Iraq devour itself. Fortunately, the conventional wisdom was rejected, and the U.S. helped Iraq’s moderate majority turn the tide against a violent minority, and open up space for peaceful democratic politics.
Iraq now has a chance for a better future, but we are not out of the woods yet. Its gains are real but fragile. Committed terrorists and malevolent neighbors seek to reignite violence within the country. Spectacular attacks have killed hundreds of Iraqis in the past few months. Major disputes, such as the status of Kirkuk, remain unresolved and potentially destabilizing.
This, in part, explains why our former ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has said, “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened.” After so much sacrifice, we are now entering a critical period when success will either be solidified or squandered, and the U.S. must be more engaged than ever.
Most immediately, once the votes are tallied, U.S. leaders need to urge all parties to accept the results peacefully and help Iraqis form a new government that can deliver on the high expectations for a better life that people share across the country. Remember: Iraqis are trying to carry off their first peaceful and fully independent transition of power in recent history. It took Iraq more than five months to form a government after its election in December 2005, and the country descended into violence in the interim. Though U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraqi cities and are departing Iraq itself, the U.S. retains substantial influence and is broadly trusted by Iraqis of every sect and ethnicity. We need to use our leverage to support Iraqis in making decisions that serve their national interests, not narrow parochial ones.
For this reason I urge President Obama to continue to be flexible in implementing the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The Status of Forces Agreement of 2008, which is guiding our military drawdown, says nothing about cutting U.S. force levels in Iraq to 50,000 by August 2010. The president added that deadline himself, assuming Iraq’s election would occur in January, not in March. We should be open to revising this timeline, based on changed and changing conditions on the ground.
Though our military footprint in Iraq will shrink over the months ahead, we must not lessen our broader commitment to Iraq in any way. We need to ramp up our diplomatic and economic engagement with Iraq as our military presence decreases. Countries emerging from war face high odds of slipping back into conflict. We cannot tolerate that outcome. A large U.S. civilian effort will be required for many years to help Iraqis sustain and strengthen their democracy. This includes provincial reconstruction teams, an enduring diplomatic presence and robust development efforts in important areas like the Arab-Kurdish fault line and the Shiite heartland of Najaf and Karbala.
Many Americans, and their elected representatives, may question the continued need for, and expense of, this effort. But after the steep price we’ve already paid, and considering how much we stand to gain, we need to make a long-term investment in Iraq.
It’s hard to overstate the potential return on this investment. A peaceful, democratic Iraq can serve as an example to other countries in the Middle East that their future can be better than their often violent and troubling past. It can encourage a contagious desire for reform in the region. It can demonstrate that freedom under the rule of law is not only possible in the Middle East, but the best path to economic development, equal justice and social reconciliation.
In short, a successful Iraq can be Exhibit A in the war of ideas against al Qaeda: a sovereign, self-governing country of Arab and Islamic majorities that rejects terrorism and violent extremism, and embraces modernization. The blueprint for this new Iraq and its relationship with the United States is found in the Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008, and its fulfillment should be based on the high performance of Iraq’s government.
This progress depends on our sustained, bipartisan commitment to Iraq, and at long last we now have the makings of one. Thanks to the success of the surge, America’s disagreements over Iraq are more about the past than the present or future. The war over the war is ending, but America’s moral obligation to Iraq’s success is, and must be, enduring.
Mr. McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona.