Liberation day in Iraq?

On April 9, 2003, the day Saddam’s statue came down in Baghdad, National Review Online asked me for a quick response. In the midst of the exuberance, and the facile comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall, I struck this cautionary note:

The Iraqis, in the end, did not rise up. They waited to see the whites of American eyes before they headed into the streets. They did not earn their freedom; they had it delivered to them, U.S. federal express. It is doubtful they are ready to assume its responsibilities.

This is the time to put illusions aside, and take a hard look at the people whose fates we now control. Just as they could not remove the dictator without American lifting, they cannot make a civil order without American prodding. There’s nothing exceptional about an excitable crowd in Baghdad. “Liberation Day” will come only when the Iraqis go to the polls, and convene a parliament.

Why did I strike that note? Ali Salem, the Egyptian playright, had shared a podium with me six months earlier, and had said something that stayed with me. Salem:

I hear so much talk of liberation. Liberation can occur only from within. People do not merely fail to welcome their liberators, they hate them. In general, we hate those who see us in a bad condition, and hate even more passionately those who save us from our plight.

Ali Salem spoke a very profound truth, and when Iraqis failed to rise up against Saddam six months later, and came out in large numbers only to pillage their own country, Salem’s words came back to me. This was not a liberation. The next opportunity could only be an election day when Iraqis, by a civic act only they could perform, would finally liberate themselves.

That day is here. The Iraqis did not turn out to join in the overthrow Saddam, because they were afraid. Now they must turn out to forge an alternative, and if they fail to do that because they are still afraid, then they are lost. They will slip slowly beneath the waves of some new despotism, condemned to reenact yet another cycle in the tormented history of a country that should never have been.

America owes Iraq this day, but beyond it there is no enduring obligation to sacrifice more for Iraqi freedom than the Iraqis are prepared to sacrifice. No people has achieved and sustained democracy that did not have men and women prepared to fight and die for the right to place a ballot in a box. Iraq is no exception.

My readers know that I’ve always been a skeptic about the democratizing project in the Arab world. The odds are against it. But I’ve always understood that skepticism cuts against the American grain, and that most Americans feel duty-bound to try. I hope against hope that this majority is right and that I’m wrong. What’s important is that when this day ends, and the outcome becomes clear, we put aside lingering illusions and see it for what it is: either a beginning, or an end.