Can There Be a Liberal Iraq?
Parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi still thinks so.
BY BRET STEPHENS
Tuesday, February 6, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
In September 2004 Mithal al-Alusi, then a director general in Iraq's De-Baathification Commission, attended a counterterrorism conference in Israel. Upon his return to Baghdad he was stripped of his job and threatened with arrest for violating a Baath-era law forbidding contact with the Jewish state. In February 2005 his two sons, Ayman, 30, and Gamal, 22, were gunned down in plain view of their father; credit for the murders was jointly claimed by the Baath Party and Jaish Ansar al-Sunna, an al Qaeda affiliate. The following December Mr. Alusi was elected to parliament as head--and sole representative--of the Iraqi Nation Party.
Mr. Alusi and his party stand for democracy, liberalism, secularism, antiterrorism and national unity. The question for Iraq is: Does anyone stand with Mr. Alusi?
Spend an afternoon in his company and you might yet be persuaded that many Iraqis do, or at least might. Mr. Alusi is in Washington, D.C., to impress his views on administration officials and observe the debate in Congress over additional troop commitments in Iraq. What does he make of that debate? "To be honest, we enjoy how beautiful this democratic system of yours can be, and we might learn from it," he says. Beyond additional U.S. soldiers, economic aid and the equipping and training of Iraq's military, what he most wants from America is intangible: "We need to transfer the values from your society to ours."
More easily said than done, you might think, given the general drift of Iraq's politics over the past four years. Yet the polling data bear him out. Between 2004 and 2006 the number of Iraqis who supported the idea of an Islamic state fell to 22% from 30%, while those agreeing that religion and politics ought to be separated rose to 41% from 27%, according to surveys conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Even in Baghdad, site of so much of the sectarian killing, the number of respondents who put their Iraqi identity ahead of their Muslim one doubled to 60%. (By contrast, only 11% of Cairenes saw themselves as Egyptian first, Muslim second.) And 65% of Iraqis agreed that it was "very important" for Iraq to be a democracy, up from 59% two years before.
Mr. Alusi doesn't cite this data, but he points to anecdotal indicators that give him hope. One is the gradual shift in Arab attitudes toward terrorism. "Something basic has changed," he says, noting that the terrorism that once was directed against Israel and the West has lost its cachet on the Arab street now that Muslims have become its principal victims. Another is the fact that Iraqi soldiers--many of them Shiite--were willing to fight and die alongside American soldiers in recent fighting against Shiite militants. "So, the loyalty to Iraqi institutions did count and the partnership between the Iraqi and American armies did hold."
So why haven't such attitudes translated into better political realities for Iraq? The first leg of the problem, in Mr. Alusi's view, is one of salesmanship. "The main mistake of liberals in the Middle East is trying to speak at too high a level. Liberal values aren't for intellectuals or for the rich. They're for the simple people." Another leg is that Iraq's liberal politicians--he mentions Ahmed Chalabi and Ayad Allawi--have spent more time jockeying for cabinet positions than proselytizing for liberal beliefs and organizing grassroots support. A third leg is the media: While sectarian parties such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa control several newspapers and TV stations, there's no real outlet for liberal ideas. Even the U.S.-sponsored Al-Hurra ("The Free One"), he laments, often seems little better than a facsimile of Al-Jazeera. The fourth leg is a voting system based on party lists, which typically encourages sectarian voting patterns.
That makes it all seem as if the main thing standing between Tocqueville and the Tigris is a bit of message discipline, electoral reform and $100 million for a privately owned liberal media outlet. What about terrorism? Mr. Alusi categorically rejects the idea that there is a civil war in Iraq, pointing out that Sunni and Shiite radicals such as al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army don't actually target each other, but instead bid to gain territory or simply sow chaos by terrorizing civilians. Much of the current violence, he adds, was encouraged by the U.S. troop drawdowns of 2005-2006, which allowed "the terrorists and the Iranians to believe their goals were within reach." Restore U.S. forces to previous levels and deploy them more effectively, he reasons, and the tide may yet be turned.
But the key point, in Mr. Alusi's view, is America's willingness to confront Iran. "You Americans are investing billions of dollars in Iraq," he says. "Three thousand beautiful sons have been killed. But the Iranians are investing in parties and politicians. Their embassy in Baghdad is larger and more active than yours. Their intelligence is moving on the Iraqi street. And they're helping Shiite and Sunni terrorist gangs."
Mr. Alusi's obsession with the Iranian threat might be explained by the fact that he is himself a Sunni. Except he is no less emphatic on the danger posed by the Sunni terrorists who murdered his sons, or Hamas militants firing rockets into Israel. "The same terrorists who are attacking Israeli society are attacking me," he says. And unlike some among the U.S. foreign policy establishment, he refuses to draw fine distinctions between Sunni, Shiite, Baathist, secular, local or global strands of modern-day terrorism. Instead, he lumps them together as an alliance of fascists, intent on using murder to impose their values, which must be confronted with an equally tenacious alliance against terrorism. "If America loses its will [in this fight] there won't be peace in the Middle East for 20 years," he warns.
None of this means that Mr. Alusi and his party are going to thrive in the future Iraq. But it is a reminder that the cause of liberalism is not yet dead in Iraq, and that the transfer of values between Baghdad and Washington is not a one-way street. America went to Mesopotamia to spread the gospel of democracy. Mr. Alusi has come to the U.S. to offer an example of courage. A point worth noting amid the speeches of Senators Hagel, Warner and Kerry.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.