Not many Muslim nations are able to sustain electoral democracy. That is a matter of history. President Bush sincerely tried to push for more democracy in the Middle East after 9/11 and ended up with the Hamas terrorists winning a majority of Palestinian votes on a "martyr yourself to destroy Israel" platform. In Egypt, the sinister Muslim Brotherhood gained in recent elections. Iraq successfully voted in three open elections for the first time, but the habit of political compromise is slow to take hold during a Hobbesian "war of all against all."
There is a fallback option to a perfect democracy in Iraq. That is the Turkish solution, which has worked in other countries, beginning with Kemal Ataturk's aggressive reforms in 1923. That is for the Army to become the guarantor of electoral governments. Turkey is riven by many political and religious factions, from modernizers and to open reactionaries. In the last election some 50 parties fielded slates, but only three made it over the 10 percent threshold into parliament. It is Ataturk's Turkish Army that has consistently been the most unifying and modernizing national force for eight decades. And by having a universal draft for young males, the modernizers have exercised great influence to bring the former Ottoman Empire into a mixed system, with a strong element of electoral legitimacy.
Today that system is endangered by three successive elections in which the Islamist AKP has won up to 40 percent of the vote. Given Turkey's winner-take-all parliamentary system, that means Islamists control all the cabinet departments. The AKP has used that leverage to infiltrate its supporters into the bureaucracy, while claiming to be reshaping Turkey to fit European standards of electoral legitimacy. (The EU is itself not elected, of course, being staffed by socialist careerists, but it is still shaping the Turkish political scene.)
While the Turkish Army does may be unacceptable by Western standards, it's pretty good for the Middle East: When the electoral system throws up a wild regime, the Army simply takes governments into receivership, runs the country until Islamist reactionaries are pushed back, and then goes back to the barracks. General Musharraf has done much the same thing in Pakistan. Indonesia has a similar dynamic, and Jordan's Hashimite dynasty depends upon its army as well.
The question is whether the new Iraqi Army, rebuilt from the bottom up by the Americans with Coalition help, can become a modernizing and unifying force in a new Iraq. It may be the only acceptable solution, because so far, Iraqi politicians have not been able to make their parliamentary system work.
This is a delicate matter for the Bush Administration, which has just figured out how to deal with the rampaging gaggle of cutthroat groups who are trying to take over the country; add to that a lot of Iranian meddling, including new shaped-charge IEDs aimed at killing Americans; also add Saudi support for suicide bombers who have blown up thousands of innocent Shiite civilians in an effort to keep Iraq under Sunni control, to protect Saudi Arabia against the Iranian threat; also add Al Qaeda in Iraq, constantly engaging in the most vicious, primitive warfare to achieve its dream of a new caliphate; plus large numbers of criminal gangs making money from kidnapping and extortion.
General Petraeus now seems to be conducting an effective counter-insurgency with a strong political component, e.g., persuading provincial tribes to revolt against Al Qaeda primitives. That strategy appears to be working for now. Counter-insurgency tactics are said to work more often than not. But they require a long-term commitment. America will sustain a friendly Iraqi regime, but without continuing to participate in the war more than a few more years.
The question therefore is whether the Iraqi Army can become the guarantor of electoral democracy, in the way the military tends to in Turkey and Pakistan. The alternative may be the rise of a primitive strongman like Muqtada Al Sadr, who could be an Iranian puppet, or who may turn into a new Shiite version of Saddam Hussein. Such a regime would almost inevitably aspire to nuclear weapons, bringing us right back to the Saddam threat.
Iraq has a secularist tradition of sorts, as last week's national celebration of an international soccer victory showed. Even Saddam Hussein was more a Hitler or Stalin type, rather than an Islamic dictator like the Khomeini throwbacks next door. An Ataturk version of a secular Iraq, balancing modernizers, religious factions, tribal sheikhs, and meddling neighbors, may be the only viable outcome.
Turkey was a strong US ally against the Soviet threat for decades, which is also a key strategic consideration. Iraq is vital to the West and to the Sunni nations (Saudi, Egypt. Jordan, etc.), all of them needed to keep the oil flowing to Europe, Japan, China and the United States.
The key question is whether the Iraqi officer corps can become a modernizing, pro-democratic center for a wildly gyrating political scene. The United States has been training, analyzing, and selecting Iraqi Army officers now for several years. We have a long record during the Cold War of shaping Third World militaries in Asia and South America to play this role, and we know how to do it. And by instituting a universal draft, the Iraqi military can also become a center for modernization over the coming decades.
Viable democracies are still rare exceptions in world history. Even Europe, the source of our political culture, continues to fall back into modern aristocracies: elitist, socialist bureaucracies, genially corrupt and endlessly demagogic. Cultural customs have enormous staying power. America, as a nation of immigrants eager to leave the past behind, continues to be different, like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Those are the only nations in the world who have been able to shrug off the past, and build anew. Everybody else is constantly struggling against their own tyrannical history. (South America has never yet been able to free itself from pervasive corruption, a popular love for strong men like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and a huge gap between a wealthy ruling class and a miserably poor majority.)
So we have been lucky. Yet the sane, democratic revolution of 1776 is still the new kid on the block in the long view of history. It continues to be challenged by authoritarian and reactionary forces in the world. Even after winning the Cold War, the Free World is not safe by any means. Russia is falling back into authoritarian state capitalism; China is still controlled by its Communist Party elite, though leavened by massive corruption and elite capitalism; and the Muslim world is now more threatened by reactionary throwbacks than before. Meanwhile, Europe is rediscovering a new aristocracy that sneers at electoral government. Europe is not a real partner so far in policing a dangerous world in a responsible fashion. It's a rogue cop, directing its energies to hating the United States rather than fixing real threats to freer nations.
Only the United States and Britain (so far) are exercising the civilizing role of the good cop on the beat.
Iraq is therefore a critical test for the Free World. That is painful, but it is an unavoidable fact. The Turkish solution may be the best we can hope for in the near term, to stabilize Iraq without a bloodbath, followed by a new Saddam Hussein.