The Country We've Got

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

January 7, 2005

Each day we get closer to the Iraqi elections, more voices are suggesting that they be postponed. This is a tough call, but I hope the elections go ahead as scheduled on Jan. 30. We have to have a proper election in Iraq so we can have a proper civil war there.

Let me explain: None of these Arab countries - Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia - are based on voluntary social contracts between the citizens inside their borders. They are all what others have called "tribes with flags" - not real countries in the Western sense. They are all civil wars either waiting to happen or being restrained from happening by the iron fist of one tribe over the others or, in the case of Syria in Lebanon, by one country over another.

What the Bush team has done in Iraq, by ousting Saddam, was not to "liberate" the country - an image and language imported from the West and inappropriate for Iraq - but rather to unleash the latent civil war in that country. Think of shaking a bottle of Champagne and then uncorking it.

This is not to say that the "liberation" of Iraq's people is impossible. But unlike in Eastern Europe - where a democratic majority was already present and crying to get out, and all we needed to do was remove the wall - in Iraq we first need to create that democratic majority.

That is what these elections are about and why they are so crucial. We don't want the kind of civil war that we have in Iraq now. That is a war of Sunni and Islamist militants against the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, many of whom do not seem comfortable fighting with, and seemingly for, the U.S. America cannot win that war. That is a civil war in which the murderous insurgents appear to be on the side of ending the U.S. "occupation of Iraq" and the U.S. and its allies appear to be about sustaining that occupation.

The civil war we want is a democratically elected Iraqi government against the Baathist and Islamist militants. It needs to be clear that these so-called insurgents are not fighting to liberate Iraq from America, but rather to reassert the tyranny of a Sunni-Baathist minority over the majority there. The insurgents are clearly desperate that they not be cast as fighting a democratically elected Iraqi government - which is why they are desperately trying to scuttle the elections. After all, if all they wanted was their fair share of the pie, and nothing more, they would be taking part in the elections.

We cannot liberate Iraq, and never could. Only Iraqis can liberate themselves, by first forging a social contract for sharing power and then having the will to go out and defend that compact against the minorities who will try to resist it. Elections are necessary for that process to unfold, but not sufficient. There has to be the will - among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - to forge that equitable social contract and then fight for it.

In short, we need these elections in Iraq to see if there really is a self-governing community there ready, and willing, to liberate itself - both from Iraq's old regime and from us. The answer to this question is not self-evident. This was always a shot in the dark - but one that I would argue was morally and strategically worth trying.

Because if it is impossible for the peoples of even one Arab state to voluntarily organize themselves around a social contract for democratic life, then we are looking at dictators and kings ruling this region as far as the eye can see. And that will guarantee that this region will be a cauldron of oil-financed pathologies and terrorism for the rest of our lives.

What is inexcusable is thinking that such an experiment would be easy, that it could be done on the cheap, that it could be done with any old army and any old coalition and any old fiscal policy and any old energy policy. That is the foolishness of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. My foolishness was thinking they could never be so foolish.

Still, the game is not over. We know that the Iraqi people do not want to be ruled by us. But what we don't know is how they want to rule themselves. What kind of majority are the Iraqi Shiites ready to be - a tolerant and inclusive one, or an intolerant and exclusive one? What kind of minority do the Iraqi Sunnis intend to be - rebellious and separatist, or loyal and sharing?

Elections are the only way to find out. Or, as Rumsfeld might say: You go to elections with the country you've got, not the one you wish you had - because that is the only way to find out whether the one you wish for is ever possible.