An Ideal In Need Of Rescue

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 8, 2006

One of the many disastrous consequences of President Bush's botched policy in Iraq is that it has given the promotion of democracy a bad name.

If the report of the Iraq Study Group is nothing else, it is a devastating declaration that the administration's approach is an abject failure and that the United States needs to scale back its goals. Grand dreams of Iraqi democracy and a transformed Middle East are out. The best we can hope for now is an Iraq that can "govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself."

Cleverly, the report cited those words because they were spoken by Bush himself in one of his least expansive descriptions of the mission. The president is now stuck with a minimalist definition of what can be accomplished in Iraq, because everything he has done since 2003 has made broader achievement impossible.

In truth, this Middle East adventure was never a serious effort to build democracy in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Yes, there were elections and there was a lot of talk about democracy. But don't listen to what the administration said. Look at what it did.

The deployment of a relatively small force to Iraq in the first place and the administration's stubborn refusal to send more troops when violence and chaos followed Hussein's fall were the first signals that the administration didn't understand what it took to create democracy, didn't mean what it said about democracy or was divided over what its objectives really were.

That the administration rushed to war without serious planning, did not take the time to cultivate a broader group of allies that could have helped in nation-building and did not talk honestly to the American people about what a large undertaking it was foisting upon them were all signs of its reckless arrogance -- or, to be more charitable, simple foolishness. The administration fought this war in a way guaranteed to make the road to democracy even more difficult.

Some of the most compelling parts of the report are the sections that will receive the least attention because they deal with the most basic tasks -- policing, the justice system, economic reconstruction, job creation and protection of the oil industry.

Of the report's 79 recommendations, Nos. 50 through 67 are common-sense proposals about rebuilding post-Hussein Iraq that should have been worked out in detail long before we even started this war. James Baker and Lee Hamilton have done in 2006 what should have been done in 2002. Most of the ideas are still good ones, but they will be almost impossible to achieve given the chaos in Iraq that the report describes so accurately.

The report is seen as the triumph of "realism" in the foreign policy debate, and it is that. After years of unrealistic administration claims that all was going well in Iraq, it is truly refreshing to read a report by a group of establishmentarians stating plainly and realistically what is actually going on.

Democrats have mostly welcomed the report, and for good reason: It makes clear that whatever happens in Iraq, the mess was created by Bush administration policies. It will be hard to blame the new Democratic Congress after the fact.

By placing what is in effect a two-year limit on the American combat commitment in Iraq -- there are plenty of fudge words, but the message is clear -- the report ratifies the judgment of America's voters last month that time had run out on Bush's adventure.

And with some of the nation's leading Republican foreign policy specialists pronouncing Bush's policies a failure, other Republicans will have a hard time accusing Democrats of stabbing our military in the back with their own calls for withdrawal. The commission states clearly that what has happened up to this point has left our nation with only bad choices.

This war has done enormous damage to the United States, and some of the damage is to our ideals. The United States still has a powerful interest in encouraging the spread of democracy around the globe. Promoting democracy must remain a core goal of American foreign policy.

But there are smart ways to promote democracy and there are stupid, even dangerous, ways. Creating democracy where it has never existed is a long and painstaking process. You can't whip it up by buying a cake mix or holding a single election and declaring victory.

An administration that fought a misguided, poorly planned and ill-considered war in the name of democracy should not be allowed to discredit the democratic idea itself.

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