Alas, Babylon


Here's the single most bizarre exchange about Iraq to take place in the "prestige" media. Thanks to PBS's Newshour, you can hear a pro-war American shrinking Jeffersonian democracy to bring it within the grasp of Iraq, and an anti-war Arab-American dismissing Iraqis as incapable of achieving democracy at all.

The premise of the debate was Bush's AEI speech pushing Iraqi democratization as a war goal. Defending Bush, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy adopted a strategy of noting America's own historical flaws, as in "Look, it took 140 years after our own Declaration of Independence before women got the vote here," and "Jefferson's democracy involved slave ownership and the right to vote only for males who owned property." As history, these remarks are unexceptional; as pro-Bush, pro-war talking points, however, they're startling. Clawson's extraordinary bottom line: "I think that Iraq will do better than" the U.S. in building a fair democracy quickly.

The responses from the Syrian-born Murhaf Jouejati, a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, were even more startling. Bush had invoked Germany and Japan as models of postwar democracy-building. Jouejati rejected the German example because Iraq "has never had a democratic tradition" despite "thousands of years of history." What about Japan? No good either, because "unlike Japan, which is homogeneous, [Iraq] is divided along ethnic and sectarian lines." Jouejati's conclusion: "Democratization is wonderful," but Iraq by its nature can't hope to achieve it in the foreseeable future.

Iraq is a complex place, and (the issues of war itself aside) any democratization efforts will probably run into sectarian problems. But that's not a premise for futility. Mideast conclusions drawn from futility reflect either political cynicism or cultural despair, and the Mideast has long been floundering in too much of both.