Foreign Policy

Bullets for Ballots

War to make the world safe through democracy


In his September 20 speech at NYU, John Kerry finally took a firm stand against the war in Iraq--a position he may already have abandoned and adopted again by the time you read this. He also cited some provocative (and debatable) numbers.

One was 23, the "number of different rationales for this war." Another was "35 to 40," the number of "countries [that] have greater capability to build a nuclear bomb than Iraq did in 2003."

President Bush's speech at the U.N. the next day, in which he argued that security can be achieved only by spreading democracy and freedom throughout the world, prompted me to look up another number: 49. That's how many countries were "not free" at the end of last year, according to Freedom House's annual tally. Throw in the 55 that were only "partly free," and you've got 104 countries (out of 192) in need of liberation.

Thanks to the United States, according to the president, two of those countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, will be moving into the "free" column any day now. Although that's not the impression you get from reading the papers or watching the news, maybe Bush is right. Still, any honest observer has to concede that it's an iffy proposition.

In the case of Afghanistan, changing the government was incidental to the main mission of attacking Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, a clear act of self-defense. It would be nice (not least for the people of Afghanistan) if something like a liberal democracy took root there, but any sort of U.S.-friendly, reasonably stable and effective government would serve the goal of denying a refuge to terrorists.

In Iraq, by contrast, the main goal apparently was to replace Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship with a constitutionally limited, democratic government that respects individual rights and the rule of law. Inspired by this example, we're told, other countries in the region will get on "the path to democracy and freedom," thereby relieving the oppression, misery, and anger on which terrorism feeds.

That this was the real rationale out of the two dozen or so comes as a surprise to many people who thought they followed the debate over war with Iraq pretty closely. Personally, I was most impressed by the weapons-of-mass-destruction and links-to-terrorism rationales, which didn't quite pan out. But I'm assured by people sophisticated in matters of foreign policy that expanding "the circle of liberty and security," as Bush put it at the U.N., was the strategy all along.

The president argued that "our world needs a new definition of security. Our security is not merely found in spheres of influence or some balance of power; the security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind."

There was much truth in what Bush said: that dictatorships are more likely than democracies to start wars and to support terrorism, that their subjects are more inclined to join terrorist groups than are the citizens of free nations. But other things the president said and did that day suggested that defending America and promoting democracy are not always compatible.

In discussing the alliance against terrorism, Bush made a gesture of solidarity with Russia, a country that is only "partly free" and getting less so (largely in the name of fighting terrorism). After the speech Bush met with another ally in the war on terrorism, the president of decidedly unfree Pakistan. The governments of "not free" countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia likewise are assisting the U.S. in the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

"For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, or even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability," Bush told the General Assembly. "The oppression became common, but stability never arrived."

Again, this is only partly true. Iraq under Saddam was a horrible place to live, but the country is more of a haven for terrorists now than it was before the war.

Unless you're blinded by partisanship, it's hard to deny that the war in Iraq so far has made America less safe by fostering terrorism and diverting us from the struggle against Al Qaeda. The fact that John Kerry lately has endorsed these criticisms does not make them less valid. The question is whether the short-term risk will be outweighed by the long-term benefit of waging war to make the world safe through democracy.