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.
Think of it this way: When you're teaching a kid to ride a bicycle, you've got to hold onto the bike to help him balance. But once he's learned how, holding onto the bike only causes problems. So it is with nations.
It turns out that social scientists have a pretty good sense of when states should let go. Almost 50 years ago, the revered sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset observed that the "more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chance it will sustain democracy."
More recently Adam Przeworski of New York University confirmed this truism by studying every attempted transition to democracy around the globe. He and his colleagues found that once a country passes $6,000 in per capita income it is virtually guaranteed to succeed in its transition to democracy. States between $3,000 and $6,000 have less than a 50-50 chance of staying democracies. And countries below $3,000 are almost bound to fail.
Why is this? The short answer is that liberty tends to come with a thriving middle class, which needs or demands stuff like relatively uncorrupt courts and bureaucracies, unions, enforceable contracts and property rights, healthcare and access to education, particularly for women.
The one great exception are nations with huge amounts of oil or other natural resources. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his wonderful book, "The Future of Freedom," these states didn't "earn" their wealth and so they didn't develop the liberal habits and institutions necessary to sustain a democracy.
If this all sounds vaguely like a "root causes" argument - i.e. poverty and poor education cause terrorism, dictatorships and tooth decay - I confess it is. But the conventional root-causers should know that foreign aid doesn't help, it hurts. Yes, it prevents starvation, and that's good. But studies show that foreign aid prevents the sort of development that leads to democracy, almost as much as oil wealth does.
Unfortunately, Iraq's per capita income is only between $1,500 and $2,400, and at least some of that comes from oil wealth - though Saddam's regime was sufficiently greedy that much of it was probably earned.
Regardless, if America were serious and free to do this the right way, we would do what we did in Japan. We'd start from scratch and build the institutions necessary for long-term success.
Instead, we'll get a lot of lever-pulling early. Unfortunately, that won't signal that it's time to celebrate.