Niall Ferguson: Why We Have to Stay in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

Niall Ferguson, in the WSJ (2-9-05):

[Mr. Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard and author of "Colossus: The Price of American Empire" (Penguin Books, 2004).]

American presidents have a professional obligation to indulge in highfalutin rhetoric, and President Bush's speechwriters have served him well this winter. "The road of providence is uneven and unpredictable, yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom." That's not a bad punch line. The echoes of FDR and JFK in the inaugural address last month were also skillfully crafted. Yet there is another president--whom I have yet to hear the president quote directly--who nevertheless hovers like a shadow over the Bush second term. That president is Woodrow Wilson.

"Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures. And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace." Mr. Bush's words. But Wilson's concept.

As the First World War drew to a close, Wilson--who had intervened in it with the greatest reluctance--was possessed with a messianic idea of how the U.S. could win "the war to end all wars" and "make the world safe for democracy." To be sure, his vision of an international order based on collective security and international law is not one to which President Bush would subscribe. But what the two men undeniably have in common is the idea that a world based on national self-determination and democracy will be an inherently peaceful world.
It could very well be that President Bush is right about the Middle East. Maybe democracy and freedom really are "on a roll" there. But it also seemed, for a time, that Wilson was right about Europe, the region he set out to transform politically.

In 1918 Wilson declared: "Democracy seems about universally to prevail. . . . The spread of democratic institutions . . . promise[s] to reduce politics to a single form . . . by reducing all forms of government to Democracy." Sure enough, of 29 European countries, nearly all acquired some form of representative government before, during or after the First World War. Unfortunately, it didn't last. Six had become dictatorships by 1925, a further four by 1930, six by 1935 and eight by 1940.

The European experience reveals something important that the Bush administration must not lose sight of. Just holding an election is not sufficient to build an enduring democracy. As Americans should know from their own history, elections are only a first step. Just as important is the process whereby a government is formed, and the process whereby a constitution is drafted that ensures this new government is not permanently in office. For a new polity, these steps are just as important as establishing an effective military force--the other objective that has come to dominate American thinking about Iraq.

All this was hard enough to do when the relatively homogeneous populations of 13 British colonies decided to establish their own government. It is especially hard in countries where there are deep ethnic divisions, as there are in Iraq today--and as there were in so many Central and East European countries after the First World War.

Democracy is not a universal panacea. To the German minorities of Czechoslovakia and Poland after 1918 it seemed to pose a threat: the tyranny of the Slav majority. Jews in Poland and Romania faced the same problem. Wilson's ideal of self-determination seemed to imagine that Europe was composed of relatively homogeneous societies like that of France or England. But the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a Turkish nation-state had dire implications for the Armenians and the Greeks.

Most moderate Middle Eastern commentators see ethnic conflict as the biggest danger now facing Iraq. It was indeed ominous that in Kurdistan--now a more or less autonomous state in a weak Iraqi confederation--a referendum on independence was hastily bolted onto last weekend's election. It was even more worrying that so many Sunni voters heeded the extremists' command not to vote.

There are those in the United States who blithely speak of a federal or confederal solution of the problem, as if Iraq were a Middle Eastern version of Canada or Switzerland. But Iraq is more like Yugoslavia. No, worse: It is more like Lebanon. For ethnic groups in the Middle East, power remains a zero-sum game. And democracy just means that the minority groups always lose. So why should they buy into it? If one group feels permanently excluded from power, it will be tempted to secede. It is no coincidence that with the spread of democracy the number of countries in the world has shot up....

Wilson finally took America into World War I in 1917. Yet by 1919 the troops were on their way home from Europe, leaving the Europeans--in effect the French--to police the peace treaty. Premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in the wake of last week's elections would run the risk of leaving no one to police the peace.

That is why the president is more right than he knows to reject calls for an arbitrary departure date. The price of liberty in Iraq will be, if not eternal vigilance on the part of the United States, then certainly 10 years' vigilance.

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