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A silver lining in Iraq

WE ARE OFTEN preoccupied with milestones and numbers, and the death of the 2,000th American soldier in the war in Iraq has been an occasion for much reflection. This particular milestone comes at a time when President Bush is already reeling from a number of political blows. At present, fewer than 40 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the war -- and 55 percent think we should not have gone to war against Saddam Hussein in the first place. The gloom is not surprising, considering that the main rationale originally given for the war -- Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- has turned out to be a fiasco.

But what if the pessimists turn out to be wrong in the long run?

Amid the bad news, a piece of good news has been eclipsed. On Oct. 25, the results of the Iraqi constitutional referendum were announced. The provisional constitution was approved by a 78 to 21 percent margin, though three provinces dominated by Sunni Arabs voted against it. (In one, the ''no" votes did not reach the two-thirds majority required to defeat the constitution.) United Nations observers confirmed that the outcome was untainted by fraud.

For the first time ever, an Arab country has adopted a democratic constitution by referendum. Despite the threat of terrorism, Iraqi men and women went to the polls in massive numbers: Turnout was about 63 percent. In December, parliamentary elections are to be held. This may not be democracy as we know it: The draft Iraqi constitution enshrines Islam as the state religion (though it also prohibits discrimination based on gender and religion), and the people tend to vote as the clerics tell them. But surely, it is a positive step in a country long tyrannized by a bloody dictatorship.

Yet the dominant media narrative is that Iraqi self-government is doomed because the draft constitution favors Shi'ites and Kurds and fails to reflect the interests of the Sunni Arabs. There are dire warnings that the Sunnis' failure to block the constitution will convince them that the political process is stacked against them, driving them to embrace the insurgency. This theme was echoed by Senator John Kerry in a speech at Georgetown University last week: ''The constitution, opposed by more than two thirds of Sunnis, has postponed and even exacerbated the fundamental crisis of Iraq."

But there is a different view. In The Weekly Standard, military historian Frederick W. Kagan writes that a democratic solution in Iraq is possible only after the Sunni community has learned that it cannot achieve its goals by violence. Kagan notes that the Sunni Arabs, who constitute about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, have long enjoyed political dominance, and to the Sunni elites less than a position of power and privilege will likely seem a rotten deal. The New Republic, a liberal magazine, takes the same view.

Of course, many Sunni Arabs are genuinely interested in a better future for their country. And they do have a stake in the political process. The December elections will have proportional representation for Iraq's provinces, guaranteeing the Sunni Arabs a bloc of seats in the parliament even if turnout in their provinces is low.

Andrew Sullivan, the former New Republic editor who has been harshly critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war and its wink-wink attitude toward human rights abuses, nonetheless writes on his website: ''If someone had told me three years ago that by October 2005 . . . Iraq would have a new constitution that emerged from a democratic process and that it will soon have a democratically elected parliament and government, I would have been thrilled." Add to this the emergence of prodemocracy forces in Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Egypt.

This is not to downplay the problems. The violence persists, the majority of the population still lack stable electricity and clean water, unemployment is rampant, and the coalition troops are widely resented. In addition to the 2,000 Americans, there are tens of thousands of Iraqis dead. But the Saddam Hussein regime was murderous as well; and at least today, the Iraqis have grounds to hope for a better future.

Nearly half a million American soldiers died in World War II. Today, we see these losses as tragic but justified, since our victory ensured the survival of freedom. Could it be that some day, history will pass similar judgment on the war in Iraq? Surely, all men and women of good will should hope that it does.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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