Three Commandments for Iraq

In the Arabic-speaking world there is a phrase that often rings from the lips of someone who has heard good news. It is: “Al hamdulillah.” Praise be to God.

When I studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo 20 years ago, I often heard this lyrical construction. But there was another phrase I heard more often: “Insha’allah.” If God wills it. It was a reminder of the humility proper to all human enterprises–that certain ends are beyond earthly means.

I was reminded of these two Arabic phrases when I read what Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week when a reporter asked him whether U.S. forces would leave Iraq if asked to do so by the not-yet-appointed interim Iraqi government scheduled to take power on June 30. Powell prefaced his answer by prognosticating that this temporary administration “will welcome the continued presence and operation of coalition military forces.” But he concluded, “[W]ere this interim government to say to us, ‘We really think we can handle this on our own. It would be better if you were to leave,’ we would leave.”

Surely this was met with al-hamdulillahs all the way from Basra to Mosul. A Coalition Provisional Authority poll conducted in late March and early April–before both the fitful siege of Fallujah and the release of the abuse pictures from Abu Ghraib prison–showed that 82% of Iraqis disapproved of the coalition occupation of their country. If Iraq had self-determination, it would determine to send U.S. forces home.

Yet, this does not necessarily represent a conflict of interests between Iraqis and Americans. They want our forces to leave as soon as possible; we want our forces home as soon as possible. President Bush himself has made almost a mantra of saying we will stay in Iraq “as long as necessary and not one day more.”

The real debate is not about whether our troops ought to come home; it is about what would make it “necessary” for them to stay. This can be determined only in reference to what one sees as the ultimate aim of the war. And that is something that inevitably divides traditionalists from ideologues.

Traditionalists believe wars must be fought only as a last resort to defend the nation against grave security threats. Ideologues believe wars ought to be fought to advance some ideal they enshrine as an international agenda. George Washington was the prototype of the American traditionalist. He steered America clear of aligning itself with Revolutionary France in France’s ideological conflict with the constitutional monarchy in England. Woodrow Wilson was the prototypical ideologue. He insisted on re-casting World War I as a war to make the world safe for democracy, and as an ironic result ended up making the world more dangerous for everyone.

A traditionalist view of the war in Iraq is that it was to eliminate the threat Saddam’s regime posed to the United States and our allies. An ideological view is that it was to make first Iraq, then the broader Middle East, safe for democracy.

The ideological war is clearly a long way from the stopping point. As long as there are factions in Iraq willing to obstruct the march toward Madisonian principles in Mesopotamia, U.S. forces would have an enemy there–even if this policy ended up making the majority of Iraqis our enemies. The ironic logic of the ideological war says we will give Iraqis democracy whether Iraqis want it or not.

The ideologues cannot accept Powell’s declaration that we will leave as soon as an Iraqi government asks us to leave because the Iraqi government that asks us to leave may not be the democracy that is the ideologues’ war aim.

Traditionalists have a different reason to be wary of Powell’s declaration: It could cause us to leave behind an Iraq that is an equal or greater threat than the one we invaded. Victory means removing the threat, not giving it a makeover.

But victory can be achieved by insisting to the Iraqis as they move forward in determining their own political destiny that there are just three commandments they must obey: 1. Thou shalt not invade thy neighbor, 2. Thou shalt not make weapons of mass destruction, and 3. Thou shalt not consort with terrorists.

When it is reasonable to assume we can make Iraq keep these commandments without keeping troops in Iraq, our troops can come home. Al hamdulillah. Will democracy dawn over Baghdad before that day? Insha’allah.