RONALD REAGAN liked to say that there was no limit to what a man could accomplish if he didn't mind who gets the credit. The transformation of Iraq from a hellish tyranny into a functioning democracy will be recorded as a signal accomplishment of George W. Bush's presidency, and he probably doesn't mind in the least that the Obama administration would like to take the credit.
This week's parliamentary elections in Iraq brought 12 million voters to the polls -- a remarkable 62 percent turnout, notwithstanding a vicious wave of Election Day bombings that killed 38 people and destroyed several buildings in Baghdad.
"Iraqis are not afraid of bombs anymore," a middle-aged voter named Maliq Bedawi told a New York Times reporter as they stood amid the rubble of a Baghdad apartment building destroyed by a Katyusha rocket. If anything, the jihadists' violence succeeded only in intensifying the refusal of ordinary Iraqis to be intimidated. "Everyone went" to vote, Bedawi said. "Even people who didn't want to vote before, they went after this rocket."
Iraqis have paid a steep price for their burgeoning young democracy: Tens of thousands of lives were wiped out in the horrific insurgency that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps that awful butcher's bill explains the fervor with which Iraqis have embraced democratic self-governance. In Sunday's elections, 6,200 candidates representing 86 political parties contended to fill 325 seats in parliament. (Would that our own congressional elections were so competitive.) Such democratic passion would be impressive anywhere. To see it flourish in one of the world's most dangerous and undemocratic neighborhood is downright heroic.
Of such heroism, a new Iraq is being fashioned -- the Iraq Bush foretold in an address to the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003, when he declared that "Iraqi democracy will succeed" and predicted that "the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." Six years later -- six years in which Iraq was convulsed by the bloody agony of sectarian terror, and in which 4,000 US military personnel were killed -- that prophecy is coming to pass.
"Something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq," acknowledges Newsweek in a recent issue. "And . . . it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East." On the magazine's cover are the words "Victory At Last," and a photograph of Bush aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, where in May 2003 he appeared before a backdrop reading "Mission Accomplished" to proclaim that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
In 2006 and 2007, few Americans expected to ever see such a magazine cover. Over and over they were told that the war in Iraq was lost, that there was no military solution to the carnage there, and that invading Iraq had been the biggest mistake in US history. Bush's decision in January 2007 to change strategy and "surge" an additional 20,000 additional troops into Iraq was scathingly denounced. Such a "fantasy-based escalation of the war," wrote The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, "could only make sense in some parallel universe where pigs fly and fish commute on bicycles." Senator John Kerry called the surge "a senseless decision." Barack Obama, gearing up to run for president, warned that doubling down in Iraq was not "going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse."
But the critics were wrong. The surge turned the war around, giving Iraq a new lease on life. Where Saddam once ruled a ghastly "republic of fear," Iraqis live today in democratic freedom and relative peace, dispelling daily the canard that democracy and Arab culture cannot co-exist.
Of course there are no permanent guarantees, and it remains to be seen whether Iraq's nascent democracy can sustain itself. For now, though, the news is very good. So good that even Vice President Joe Biden -- who a few years ago was calling for Iraq to be partitioned, and who blasted Bush's surge as "a tragic mistake" and "not a solution" -- now takes credit for Iraq's rebirth.
"I am very optimistic about Iraq," Biden recently told CNN's Larry King. "I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration." Somewhere, Ronald Reagan must be chuckling.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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