Losing the War, as Well as the Battle
By Fareed Zakaria
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.
Dec. 25, 2006 - Jan. 1, 2007 issue - It's relatively easy these days to point out all the ways in which George W. Bush has been ill-informed, misguided and wrong about Iraq. And in case you run out of examples, the president provides fresh ones continually. But on one central issue, Bush has been right. He has argued from the start that a modern, liberal democratic Iraq would be an example, an inspiration and a spur for progress in the Middle East. The trouble is, the Iraq of today is having precisely the opposite effect. If Bush wants to save his freedom agenda, he needs to decouple it from Iraq.
For all his intellectual shortcomings, Bush recognized that the roots of Islamic terror lie in the dysfunctions of the Arab world. Over the last 40 years, as the rest of the globe progressed economically and politically, the Arabs moved backward. Decades of tyranny and stagnation—mostly under the auspices of secular, Westernized regimes like those in Egypt and Syria—have produced an opposition that is extreme, religiously oriented and, in some cases, violent. Its ideology is now global, and it has small bands of recruits from London to Jakarta. But at its heart it is an Arab phenomenon, born in the failures of that region. And it is likely only to be cured by a more open and liberal Arab culture that has made its peace with modernity. Look for example at two non-Arab countries, Malaysia and Turkey, whose people are conservative and religious Muslims. Both places are also reasonably successful economies, open societies and functioning democracies. As a result, they don't produce swarms of suicide bombers.
Iraq after Saddam presented a unique opportunity to steer history on a new course. But instead the Bush administration drove it into a ditch. As a result, the effort to create an Iraqi model for the Middle East has failed. No matter what happens over the next year or two, the country has developed into more of a warning about the dangers of democracy than a symbol of its promise. When people around the world—and, most important, in the region—look at Iraq, they see chaos, religious extremism and violence.
Donald Rumsfeld frequently says, as he did again in his last appearance at the Pentagon, that if you were to "fly over" Iraq as he does, you would see that the violence is greatly exaggerated. In fact, were Rumsfeld to have dared to brave the roads of Iraq—as reporters do every day—he would have discovered that the reverse is true.
The Iraq Study Group report—which Rumsfeld boasts he has not really read—points out that "there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq ... A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn't hurt U.S. personnel doesn't count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence."
Now look at the "safe" areas. The south of the country, which the administration claims is stable, is run by fanatical religious parties, militias and street gangs, most of whom impose Iranian-style restrictions on people's rights and liberties. For minorities (like Christians) and for women, the new Iraq has been one of persecution and punishment. In many Sunni areas in the center of the country, a Taliban-style puritanism is being enforced. Amid the chaos, the groups that can provide security tend to be the most thuggish and extreme in their political views. And wherever there are mixed populations—throughout Iraq's cities—a gruesome campaign of ethnic cleansing has produced hundreds of thousands of internal refugees. Almost 2 million Iraqis—8 percent of the population—have fled the country entirely.
In the wake of this "model," not a single Arab regime feels any pressure to reform. They say to their people, "Do you want a democracy like they have in Iraq?" (The refrain echoes beyond the region. Vladimir Putin makes the same point in Russia, to justify his own usurpations of power.) Look around. The Saudi royals are stronger than ever. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has jailed his opponents. The Syrian regime, once troubled, is more confident. Iran is ascendant. And the United States has become radioactive. Were America to come out in favor of clean water, we would find people opposed in the Arab world today.
George W. Bush needs to understand that he now has to choose between Iraq and his broader Middle East project. Only by realizing that Iraq has gone awry and reducing America's involvement there can he credibly push a different, more incremental reform in other countries. If, instead, he insists on digging deeper in Iraq, America's war will drown out all else. For the sake of his own freedom agenda, President Bush must move beyond Iraq.