Three years ago I wrote that Iraq’s was an aristocratic society, a “command culture,” and that democracy in such an environment would resemble eighteenth-century England more than twenty-first century America. The tribes would elect their chiefs, like the old parliamentary boroughs elected their squires: the big men would rule, if by a sort of consent. The mix was tricky, but not impossible, certainly not unprecedented.
Initially, the Sunni tribal chiefs turned their guns on our troops. Muktadar Sadr, who is quite literally what the Spanish called an hidalgo — a “son of somebody,” with little else to recommend him — turned his guns on the Sunnis. The Iraqi government stood by, either bewildered or complicit. Democracy wasn’t on the table.
Yet God takes care of drunks, little children, and the United States of America. In this instance, we were particularly lucky in our opponents. Al Qaeda in Iraq held power over large swaths of land in the Sunni triangle. Its bizarre and brutal rule alienated the local chieftains, who turned their guns against the terrorists after the U.S. offered support — the now-famous “Awakening.” Sadr was booted out of Basra by a revitalized central government. The slaughter of innocents in Iraq slowed down, and has by now largely ceased.
The provincial elections just held mark a new phase in the country’s political evolution. Violence was minimal. That bears saying, because it drove the story out of the public eye. The information-for-pay business, otherwise known as the “news,” wants gore and bloodshed from Iraq, for whatever reason: peace is repaid with silence. The voters in the provincial elections came and went unharmed. One could almost hear crickets chirping in newsrooms across America. Time to talk about the economic stimulus.
In immediate terms, the results are a victory for the central government. The more lasting consequence may be the resurrection from the ashes of secular and even liberal ideals in Iraq. The current government has more than its share of flaws, but it has delivered security, and it has kept the theocrats at arm’s length. The voters’ embrace was motivated less by love than by fear of the alternatives.
In any case, the chiefs have put down their guns, and are back playing politics. In places like Anbar — where the first Awakening took place — they are unhappy with the results of the vote. Such discomfort with the democratic process is to be expected. Big men by definition impose their will on others, and losing in any way smacks of weakness.
The future of Iraq is thus wide open. Neither democracy nor peace are a certainty. Freedom is a moral condition, not a political system, and the Iraqis must work through their traditional values if they are to tolerate the strange give-and-take of liberal democracy. The big men, who represent the sovereignty of the people of Iraq, must learn to lose while looking strong. In the eighteenth century, English aristocrats pulled it off, but I doubt they are the models of virtue for the sheyks of Anbar.
An open future for Iraq is better than seemed likely a few years ago, vastly better than the prospect for most countries in that sad corner of the world. Freedom remains possible. It won’t be an American freedom, because freedom can’t be imposed from outside. The Iraqis will earn it on their own, or lapse into chaos or despotism. If they achieve freedom, the result, as I posted elsewhere, will be scarcely recognizable to us. Free Iraqis won’t behave like free Americans.
Newsrooms will frame the difference as a defeat: that’s what they do. But freedom is a moral requirement of human dignity, and that dignity, in a sense, is nothing more than the defense of legitimate differences. A free but perplexing Iraq, should it come to pass, will be a transcendental victory for liberal democracy and for the future of freedom.