TCS Daily

Keep Allawi at the Helm

By Lee Harris - February 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Everyone who thinks that democracy in Iraq is a good thing, hold up your hand. Now everyone who thinks that interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi should have been soundly defeated in the Iraqi national elections, hold up your hand. Okay -- now how many people who held up their hands to the first question held up their hands for the second question? Few, if any, I would wager. After all, the Americans who were cheering for democracy to work in Iraqi were also cheering for Allawi to win by a landslide. Indeed, for many of us, our hopes for democracy in Iraq depended, to a large degree, on our faith in this one individual leader -- and with good reason. He deserved our faith.

It is true that democracies have historically cast aside great leaders once their task had been discharged, the way England pushed Churchill out of office once the Second World War had been won, for example. But in the case of Allawi, his task had only just begun -- so that excuse doesnt work in this case. Indeed, here we clearly have the case of changing horses in the middle of the stream -- to use the metaphor Franklin Roosevelt came up with, in order to justify his running for a third unprecedented term on the eve of World War II. Only Iraq is not in the middle of a stream; it is in the middle of a struggle for its survival as a nation. It is in desperate need of continuity, strength, and unity.


Regrettably, the next man to be chosen to lead Iraq will depend for his power on an inherent fragile and unstable coalition of Kurds and traditional Shiites, and this means that not only will he be weak, but he will be more interested in keeping the support of his political backers than in winning the struggle against the terrorist insurgents. In other words, at the precise moment that Iraq desperately needs a strong and unchallenged leader, it is being turned over to rule by parliamentary debate -- a wonderful form of government if you happen to have the good fortune to live in a society in which men do not routinely blow themselves up in front of schools, hospitals, and police stations, but woefully unfit to deal with a crisis of the magnitude facing Iraq.


It is emotionally uplifting to watch millions of Iraqis line up courageously to take charge of their own lives; but it is profoundly disturbing to discover that, by doing so, they have discarded the one man who, with immense personal courage, has managed the nearly impossible task of preserving the honor and integrity of his nation during a period of military occupation, on the one hand, and all out terrorist assault, on the other. Indeed, Allawis accomplishment places him in the company of truly inspiring leaders -- precisely the kind of leader that the Muslim world so desperately needs, if there is to be hope for the future of the region.


In which case, we are forced to ask ourselves the painful question, Why was such a man defeated, and defeated by a such a huge margin? What had Allawi done that was so wrong in the eyes of the Iraqi people?


His first crime may have been that he was too secular -- a Shiite, but not one willing to push for a Koran-based polity, otherwise known as a theocracy. His second crime, I suspect, was that he had worked with the United States -- not as a collaborator, as he is often represented in the lunatic Arab media, but as a genuine patriot who realized that the best chance for his country to gain freedom and autonomy was through the generous and disinterested help of America. That was why he was willing to take risks to his political career by publicly backing the American-led attack on Fallujah: he knew that the situation in Fallujah had to be dealt with, if there was to be any hope for stability in Iraqs future.


The Bush administration was at its very best when working with Allawi: both parties behaved with enormous restraint, displaying immense reserves of mutual respect and confidence. During the period between the transfer of sovereignty at the end of June and the elections at the end of January, Bush and Allawi managed to cooperate as team players, with a complete absence of the kind of open and public conflict that would have appeared to have been unavoidable under the enormously difficult circumstances facing both the American President and the Iraqi leader -- surely a tribute to the personal character of the two men, as well as to the singularly fortunate dynamic at work between them. Together they managed to keep Iraqi sovereignty intact, without loss of face either to Allawi or to the Bush administration.


The ultimate tragedy in Iraq may well be that the nation actually had a chance for a decent future -- a chance that the Bush administration had given the Iraqi people through its deft backing of a truly national leader like Allawi, yet a chance which the same administration may well have fecklessly thrown away through its ideological fixation on formal democracy as a panacea for all that ails the Middle East. In the past, democracies have not only voted good men out of office, in order to put terrible men into their place, but democracies have, at times, even voted themselves out of existence. The French did this when they elected Louis Napoleon emperor, the Italians did this when they made Mussolini the Duce, the Germans did it when they made Hitler the Fhrer. The once supposedly democratic revolution in Iran ended in a Shiite theocracy; and it could happen once again in Iraq.


The Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, the champion of the open society, warned of what he called the paradox of democracy. If the people wish to vote themselves out of power, what is to stop them -- except a minority determined to protect the rights of a majority who is no longer interested in defending such rights themselves?


By this paradox, it may well have been that the best policy to pursue in Iraq would have been to back Allawi to the hilt, come hell and high water. True, those who hate us would have called us imperialists; but they us call that anyway, even after the elections that we held in order to prove that we are not. The Bush administration, by hoping to appear admirable in the eyes of its enemies, may well have ended by betraying its best friends -- Allawi and those who shared his views of Iraq as an open and liberal society.


What can be done at this point, I am in no position to say. But I would strongly urge the Bush administration to put as much pressure as it can possibly put on the new coalition government to rise above their own narrow sectarian and regional perspectives, in order to preserve a winning team. We can work with Allawi -- and since it is our money and our manpower upon which the future of Iraq now depends, and will continue to depend for a long time, then we have every justification to make such a call. True, it would be intervening with the Iraqi peoples rights of national self-determination; but if the Americans werent there to defend these rights, who would even know that they existed?


Pressure, bribe, coerce -- even send the magnificent and miracle-working Condoleezza Rice, if all else fails. But do whatever it takes to keep Allawi at the helm. We owe it to the children of Iraq -- the ones who couldnt vote in the last election, but who, with a bit of luck and a little more American behind-the-scenes intervention, may yet grow up to vote in future ones.


Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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