Jonah Goldberg

As the June 30 deadline approaches for the transition to a - kind of, sort of, wink-wink, fingers-crossed - democratically elected government in Iraq, I'm starting to think we might be making a mistake. Hold on, hold on. I still think the war was the right thing to do and we were right to do it. But I'm not we've got our priorities straight.

By now, if you've been paying attention, you know why we should be worried. Iraq seems poised for a civil war. Outside forces - Islamists, Iranian and Syrian mischief-makers, al-Qaida - all would benefit (or believe they'd benefit) from the Lebanonization of Iraq. I don't think this is as likely as some do, since as long as the U.S. military is in the country it's unlikely an actual civil war will break out.

But avoiding civil war in Iraq is about as high a bar for our foreign policy as avoiding food poisoning is for a dinner party.

All of this is moot, of course, since we are locked into the June 30 deadline. But it's worth looking at the big picture and asking ourselves whether elections should be the last thing on our checklist for Iraq or the Middle East.

Right now, the Bush Administration is pushing its Greater Middle East Initiative very hard. It's full of numerous good ideas. But - other than an unlikely solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem - I'm sure as shinola the only measuring stick the Western media will use to determine its success will be elections.

That's too bad. Elections aren't any more inherently moral or useful than a hammer. I can use a hammer to build a house or to smack you in the forehead (which could also be moral if you're doing something very bad to provoke me).

What are moral are human rights and the rule of law - i.e. "liberty" or the toothier "liberal constitutionalism." In our culture, particularly in our journalism, we tend to think that democracy means liberty, but it doesn't.

For example, if it weren't for the Turkish military, voters probably would have voted in favor of making Turkey a theocracy by now. But the generals have made it clear that they won't abide by any reversal of Turkey's secular state. By standing against the democratic will of the people, the Turkish military has stood with the forces of liberty.

Liberty is a lot harder to create and preserve than elections. Anybody can round up a bunch of people and get them to pull levers. Creating a liberal society is an educational process. Only after institutions and individuals form the habits of a liberal society is democracy possible - or helpful.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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