Democracy and its ironies

Posted: Nov 18, 2003 12:00 AM

In the world-saving business, it's always something.

The British public is alienated over the war in Iraq. Protesters clog London on the occasion of President Bush's visit there, asserting their sovereign right to say anything absurd that comes to mind. Saddam tapes another message, excoriating the United States. Two U.S. helicopters collide in midair over Mosul, and 17 more American troops die.

The Bush administration advances the timetable for extricating us from the alleged Iraqi "quagmire," and -- lo! -- the talk in Washington and elsewhere is of how hope for a democratic Iraq "now looks like even more of a long shot," as two Wall Street Journal reporters put it.

In other words, as we used to say in small-town Texas, it's durned if you do and durned if you don't. (Contemporary usage, which I sometimes succeed at ignoring, is likely more explicit.)

A couple of considerations are, nevertheless, worth keeping in mind.

First, this is how it goes in the media age. It's not just that everybody is an "expert." It's always been that way. The point is that everybody today enjoys in unprecedented degree the means -- blogs, personal Web sites, talk radio -- of advertising his expertise far and wide. What we are talking about here is a First Amendment thing.

That treasured amendment says nowhere that only wise and judicious sentiments may be voiced. It implies that idiotic sentiments will be voiced. As they are. This can work hardship on national leaders trying to make national policy, but interestingly, cacophony of speech is one of the very things the United States is trying to make possible in Iraq. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Howard Dean and the editorial writers of The New York Times will yet have a lucid thought on Iraq. We should remain open to that extraordinary possibility.

Second, there is likely no perfect outcome. ("Perfect" from whose standpoint is a relevant question. George Bush's? Kofi Annan's? John Kerry's?) This may be one reason critics of the war are so unspecific in their criticisms. Turn it over to the United Nations is about the only "answer" that ever comes from the antiwar left; that or just come on home now.

As we know, the United Nations doesn't want this can of worms, nor -- demonstrably -- does the mass of the Iraqi people want us to leave just yet. Anti-Saddam sentiment in Iraq belies all those fake referenda of old, wherein Saddam won every vote save those of the Iraqis he shot for not permitting him to win every vote.

Assuming the Bush administration remains reasonably resolute -- an almost foregone conclusion -- things seem more or less likely to work out more or less OK in Iraq. That is to say, more-or-less-democratic-minded Iraqis will take charge of the government, as the United States steps farther and farther back; whereupon we can move on to the next challenge.

The quest for perfect solutions in human affairs is an all-too-human preoccupation: one that dooms humans to the perpetual frustration that proceeds from hopes less than perfectly realized.

"If only ... !" we keep exclaiming. It doesn't work that way, least of all in democracies, where the perpetual clamor for a piece of the action excludes the prospect of completely logical outcomes.

The high-energy Bush bashing that is the most conspicuous feature of our times obscures certain realities, such as the exquisite difficulty of getting things done in a democratic setting. Louis XIV and Richelieu wouldn't have let things get to this. Nor would an American Saddam.

The American quest to install democracy in Iraq (and thus increase the comfort level of non-Iraqis) deserves much more than the abuse it receives from many of those now exercising their democratic right to abuse and second-guess and poor-mouth.

Well, that's life. So is heroic endurance of the sort the Bush administration exhibits in the face of those democrats who seem to think the present Middle East has all the democracy it needs or deserves.