In the run-up to the Iraq war, many of us reasoned that if a successful democracy took root, then this just might establish a model that would replicate itself throughout the region, forever altering the currently highly negative image that the Arab and Muslim world has of the U.S. After all, Iraq is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, and one in which the U.S. government has invested a great deal of human and material resources[.](Thanks: MK.)
This thesis, however, has taken some hard knocks, as democratization in Iraq has so far translated only into elections, not the rule of law. Meanwhile, levels of violence have been rising, not falling in Iraq since 2003, reinforcing the false idea held by some Iraqis that democracy is in the end a form of anarchy. The escalation of violence has been particularly significant since the Askariya shrine in Samarra was blown up in late February 2006, an action that marks the success of efforts to undermine the enthusiasm that lay behind the historic vote of December 2005.
What has gone wrong with the democratic project in Iraq, and is it possible to recover the ground lost to the rising levels of sectarian violence? To begin, I will consider the security situation. The violence largely affects 4 out of 18 provinces in Iraq, and not the country as a whole. Unfortunately, Baghdad is in one of those four provinces, which are among the most mixed in terms of ethnic and confessional identities.
The incipient civil war has in fact been building up for nearly two years, during which the Iraqi body count has been steadily rising and the American body count lowering. The insurgency has been targeting Shiites and Kurds for a long time now, with the clear and unambiguous intention of fomenting civil war. New evidence that has just come to light confirms that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terrorist operation, Al Qaeda's arm in Iraq, has mapped out the more vulnerable Shiite areas with a view to targeting them and driving families out in the first stages of what amounts to a kind of confessional cleansing of parts of Baghdad. If the conflict was ever about the American occupation of Iraq, clearly it no longer is.
If the war against the insurgency is not going as well as was hoped, in large part this is because the regimes on Iraq's borders - the very ones that would be most undermined by a success story in Iraq - are sustaining it by doing little or nothing to stop the infiltration of determined jihadis from slipping in and wreaking havoc. If anything, the neighboring regimes are aiding them.
Success in Iraq is no longer going to be a strictly Iraqi story, if it ever was going to have been. Real success in Iraq will remain a hostage to events and changes occurring in other parts of the Middle East, changes driven in part by the ripple effects of regime change in Iraq and in part by reformist currents responding to the crisis of the Arab state system as a whole.
In the beginning, the insurgency looked like it was about occupation - a fiercely independent and nationalist people responding to the presence of foreign troops on their soil. But at least today and perhaps earlier, it is clearly not about that. The fact is that an old order in the Middle East is battling the emergence of a new one. Much like the American civil war, it is in the end going to be about what it means today to be an Iraqi. The insurgents know that they cannot possibly win this war, but they can bring the whole house tumbling down, or so at least they believe. Their goal is a sectarian civilian bloodbath, inter-confessional warfare, and the collapse of the state, which would undo everything the U.S. was trying to achieve when it overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime.
[D]espite [the] miscalculations, the Iraq War ushered in an event as big as the January 30, 2005 Iraqi elections, followed by the October referendum on the constitution, followed by an even more impressive election turnout on December 15. That is a truly remarkable paradox. The large turnout in the elections alone suffice[s] to establish the event as a defining moment in the future, not only of Iraq but of the whole Middle East.
The three elections that took place in Iraq in 2005 are not enough to make a democracy but they have certainly changed the regional landscape. Millions of people were seen to be making choices and placing claims on those who would lead them in the future. To act upon one's own world like this is what politics in the purest sense is all about. And it is infectious. The taste of freedom is a hard memory to rub out.
The insurgency has no chance of winning; it has no program to which to win people over. It will in the end be defeated, not by the U.S. army alone but by the people of Iraq. Increasingly the Iraqis are fighting back; the U.S. is needed but its presence is less and less the reason for the bloodshed. The only question that has a bearing on whether or not this war was worth fighting is what kind of an Iraq will the defeat of the insurgency leave behind.
[U]ltimately this is not a civilizational divide[,] but a war of ideas and values as signaled by al-Zarqawi's statement denouncing Iraq's January elections: "We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it."