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Iraq: Was Bush Right?

A University of Hawai'i political science professor explains why he thinks Iraq is the right war, at the right time.


An Iraqi woman holds her finger aloft for the ink to dry after voting at a school in the town of Abu Al Khasib on the southern edge of the Iraqi city of Basra, Jan. 30, 2005. photo: ODD Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

I have been increasingly disappointed with the poll results on our war in Iraq. In December 2003, 63 percent of people in a CBS/New York Times poll thought the war was the right thing to do when asked, "Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the U.S. have stayed out?" Only 31 percent thought we should have stayed out.

However, in December 2005, just before the Iraqi election, the split was down to 48 to 48. By then, Democrats were turning against continuing the occupation, with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean saying that the "idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong." Other notable Democrats called for either immediate withdrawal or a timetable for withdrawal.

The urge to end the war is powerful and understandable. People look at the cost of trying to nurture a democracy in Iraq and naturally ask, "What's in it for us?" "What does this have to do with American security?" "Is it worth the deaths of more than 2,200 American soldiers?"

By now, some 10,000 military personnel from Hawai'i have served in Iraq. More than 1,000 are there right now. This August, about 7,000 more soldiers will deploy to Iraq. These very questions keep many of us in the Islands up at night.

Why am I disappointed by the steady decline in support for the war? Because I believe President George W. Bush is right to stay the course in Iraq. My views come from a lifetime of studying totalitarian regimes–of which Hussein's Iraq was certainly one–and the profound ways in which they threaten humanity. Success in Iraq would have equally profound and positive benefits for the world. This is something I wish more people understood, and what I hope to explain here.

The Democratic Peace

It has been three years since the United States invaded Iraq–with the support of 49 nations, with specific Congressional approval, and under UN Security Resolution 1441–to eliminate the threat posed by Hussein. No one has forgotten that the administration based its urgency for the invasion on the belief that Hussein possessed, or could easily assemble, weapons of mass destruction which could threaten the region.

Because those weapons have not been uncovered, many critics of the war have come to see America's attempt to foster democracy in Iraq as a post hoc justification for the war. This view disregards that liberating the Iraqi people was always a central component of Bush's plan, second only to thwarting Hussein's weapons of mass destruction ambitions. In his speech on the eve of the March 20, 2003, invasion, Bush spoke repeatedly of "helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country," of "restor[ing] control of that country to its own people."

Nor is Bush's interest in demo-cratization limited to Iraq. Speaking to reporters in 2004 about his insistence that the Palestinian Authority also become democratic, Bush explained, "The reason why I'm so strong on democracy is democracies don't go to war with each other … I've got great faith in democracies to promote peace."

In other words, he has faith in what is called by students of international relations the democratic peace. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made this connection explicit in her Dec. 11, 2005, Washington Post article, "The Promise of Democratic Peace."

This is the goal worth pursuing, that one that makes Iraq the right war, at the right time. The long-term benefits of a democratized Iraq are inherently beneficial, to the Iraqi people, to the region and to us. This is because the theory of the democratic peace simply works.

We know from research done over the past three decades that this is true. The table above shows that, since 1816–the end of the Napoleonic Wars–there have been no wars between two democracies, although there were 371 bilateral wars.

Since 1816, there have been only three cases of violence between democracies that ended in deaths. Two of these involved Peru and Ecuador. In 1981, Peru was only marginally democratic, as was Ecuador, but less so. This was also true of Peru and Ecuador in 1984. The only other case of violence over these nearly two centuries was marginally democratic Ecuador (initiator) vs. the United States, in 1954. Only three cases, and none since 1984, despite there being 122 electoral democracies today, 89 of them liberal democracies whose people have civil liberties and political rights.

An Iraqi electoral commission official waits for voters near a ballot box during a referendum on the Iraqi constitution at a polling station in Fallujah on Oct. 15, 2005. photo: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getting Images

There is much more to the democratic peace then avoiding war or international violence. Democracies have been involved in many wars, some they launched themselves (America's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq being the most recent examples). However, by an order of magnitude or more, democracies fight the least severe wars, in terms of numbers killed, compared to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

Moreover, on the average, democratic nations are the most internally peaceful–they have the least violence in numbers killed in rebellions, civil wars, civil unrest, anti-government riots, violent strikes and coups.

Perhaps most importantly, demo-cracies seldom murder their own citizens. Democide (genocide and mass murder) is an evil of militarism (as in Burma), monarchism (Russia's Peter the Great), theocratism (Iran), fascism (Hitler) and communism. Over the whole 20th century, governments–almost all nondemocracies–murdered about 262 million people, eight times the number killed in combat in all the last century's international and domestic wars.

In stark comparison to this horrible human cost of dictatorships, no liberal democracy has systematically murdered its own people.

Saddam Hussein is up among the mega-murderers. He murdered close to a million Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and launched a war against Iran in which probably a million more died. Hussein and his form of government, regardless of its armament, were themselves threats to peace and security, and a proven disaster for the people of Iraq.

Building the Democratic peace in Iraq

Of course, the democratic peace doesn't just happen on its own. It takes hard work. Although Baghdad fell to coalition forces within three weeks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Hussein himself was captured in December of that year, the path to democracy and stability in the country has been a long, complicated one.

As the Bush administration did in Afghanistan, in Iraq it helped Iraqis rebuild and develop their country economically, and create from scratch a new army and security force. The United States has also helped them democratize, as it successfully did with defeated and destroyed Germany and Japan after World War II. Here are the four major events in that process thus far:

• On June 28, 2004, Bush transferred sovereignty to an interim Iraqi govern-ment, which prepared for a national election of a transition government whose only purpose was to write a constitution.

• In January 2005, the Iraqis voted this government into temporary power and, with much conflict, bargaining and negotiation, it wrote a constitution.

• In an October referendum, Iraqis approved this constitution.

• In December, under the new cons-titution and for the first time ever, Iraqis voted in a national, competitive election for a democratic government.

Belligerents wars*
Democracies vs.
Democracies vs.
Nondemocracies vs.
* At least 1,000 killed

Sources: Melvin Small and J. David Singer, SIPRI, PRIO, Monty Marshall, R.J. Rummel.

About 70 percent of Iraqis turned out to vote and, according to foreign election observers and the United Nations, it was a fair election meeting international standards.

When you and I vote, we drive to a local elementary school, then safely and easily mark our choices. No one assassinates election workers, or threatens to murder voters simply for showing up. This hasn't been the case for ordinary Iraqis, who have taken great risks to hold and participate in elections. Throughout Iraq's pursuit of the democratic peace, there has been bloody opposition by foreign terrorists, who saw the American occupation of Iraq as an opportunity to defeat American power, and who especially understood that a Muslim democracy in the Middle East threatened their ambitions to spread a fundamentalist theocracy.

Even more powerful opposition has come from Sunni insurrectionists, those who had most benefited from Hussein's rule (he is Sunni himself). Every one of their roadside bombs directed against American forces is specifically meant to make those of us at home second guess our presence in Iraq in support of democratization. Judging from the poll results I opened with, the attacks have indeed taken their toll on our will to see through the reconstruction of Iraq as a functional democracy.

Nonetheless, Bush has refused to withdraw. He is convinced of the rightness of what he calls the Forward Strategy of Freedom and this war, as I am.

Iraq in the Big Picture

On Nov. 6, 2003, in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush proclaimed his Forward Strategy of Freedom. Although focused on the Middle East, it was general in tone. He stated that, "As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace." He emphasized that, "There are ... essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture.
"Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military–so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite.

"Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selectively applying the law to punish political opponents.

"Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions–for political parties, labor unions, independent newspapers and broadcast media.

"Successful societies guarantee religious liberty–the right to serve and honor God without fear of persecution.

"Successful societies privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property. They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognize the rights of women.

"And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people."

These principles provide the foundation for the president's new foreign policy–new in the sense that he had not so clearly articulated it before. He committed the United States to promote and foster freedom, and he put dictators on notice that they will no longer be "excused and accommodated."

Two days after his speech, as if to double underline it, the president issued a proclamation naming Nov. 9 World Freedom Day. He proclaimed: "Fourteen years ago, freedom-loving people tore down the Berlin Wall and began to set a nation free from Communist oppression. On World Freedom Day, the United States joins with other countries in commemorating that historic day. The United States is committed to liberty, freedom and the universal struggle for human rights. We strive to advance peace and democracy and to safeguard these ideals around the world."

So, why are we fighting in Iraq and fostering democratic freedom there and elsewhere? The answer is to promote an end to war, democide and famine, and to minimize internal political violence. In other words, it is to foster global human security.

Surely, creating a world in which there will never be war or democide is in American national interest, the vital interest of our children, and is worth fighting and dying for.

R.J. Rummel Ph.D. is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. He has published 32 books, received a number of awards for his contributions, and has been frequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His Web site is at www.hawaii.edu/powerkills, and he keeps a daily blog at freedomspeace.blogspot.com.

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