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Strange Sighting in Iraq

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

What can this be approaching across the sands of Iraq? It can't be. It's not possible. It's not found in this unnatural habitat ... and yet there is. It shows the outward signs, including some of the innate strengths and inevitable weaknesses and distinctive eccentricities of that rarest of creatures in those Mesopotamian climes: democracy.

It must be a mirage, like so many other fleeting signs of hope over the chaotic years in Iraq. And yet it betrays at least a couple of the characteristic traits of a lumbering democracy: a free election (at least by Iraqi standards) and a surprising outcome. A party out of power seems to have received more votes than the ruling one. How rare in that part of the world, where despotism is the rule and democracy a carefully cultivated exception. Like a garden in a desert.

But there it is. Undeniably. Even in Iraq. The secularist ticket headed by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has garnered a couple of seats more (91 to 89 at last report) than Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite coalition. Even if neither party alone polled a majority of Iraq's many-splintered electorate.

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That the election was relatively peaceful was itself a triumph for democracy. "Only" 42 people were killed and 65 wounded in twin bombings north of Baghdad as officials prepared to announce the election results. Peace is a highly relative term in that strife-torn nation, but today's Iraq is an oasis of tranquility compared to the one that was on the verge of civil war only a few years ago. How things have changed, and -- keep your fingers crossed -- much for the better.

Before the Surge, Iraq's future was so bleak that at least one U.S. senator proposed to partition it, like Gaul, into three parts. It was quite a fashionable idea at the time among our foreign-policy elite, and Joe Biden echoed it. He has since gone on to become vice-president of the United States, which gives him a much more impressive sounding board for his more embarrassing comments. He's still got a million of 'em.

In Iraq, a party headed by Shi'ite -- Ayad Allawi's -- drew Sunni voters in overwhelming numbers. Which was a victory for tolerance in itself. While the other major bloc, Prime Minister Maliki's Shi'ite-based coalition, preached reconciliation, at least formally. Whoever turns out to be the next prime minister of Iraq, that each had to appeal to the whole, varied country is a welcome augury for its united future.

Naturally, there was talk of disputing the election results and disqualifying some of the winning candidates to reverse the outcome, but it seems to be dissipating as all the parties begin negotiating with each other to form a government weeks or months from now. Which is a lot quicker than it would take to recount hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand. Remember the Long Count in Florida that marked this country's presidential election in 2000? A recount in Iraq would make that ordeal look speedy.

If there were a recount Bush-Gore style in Iraq, there's no telling when or if it could be finished. "We'd have to hire more than 350,000 employees," said the chairman of Iraq's election commission, "and if we didn't hire that many, we'd need three years to recount" the ballots.

Elections are the best thing about democracy. Elections are the worst thing about democracy. It all depends on how free, honest, peaceful and decisive they are. Given an election in which the division between the leading candidates is smaller than the margin of error, trouble ensues. Or at least delay. It took more than a month -- 36 uncertain days -- before the United States got its next president back in 2000. And we've been at this democracy business a lot longer than the Iraqis.

For the moment, Iraq's politicians are too busy haggling over the next government to seriously contest the election's outcome. Which is much better than their questioning the legitimacy of the election itself. Eventually a government should emerge there -- without violence. Neighboring Afghanistan still has a long, bloody way to go before it's at Iraq's hopeful stage in the transition to democratic rule.

Just as the armed forces of the United States have made it possible for Iraq to elect its leaders, now our troops are waging much the same fight in Afghanistan. There is a remarkable justice to history: The American president who this week paid a lightning visit to our troops in Afghanistan opposed the Surge in Iraq when he was a senator, predicting it would be futile. But a new general, a new strategy, and the remarkable courage and resilience of American forces surprised Barack Obama, who's a fast learner even if he hates to admit he's got a lot to learn about foreign policy. Now he seems wholly committed to achieving in Afghanistan what his predecessor accomplished in Iraq.

This is unlikely to be the commander-in-chief's last visit to an American army engaged in a distant land. There is no way to escape assuming the responsibilities of empire in a world so dangerously interconnected, much as it goes against America's isolationist grain. Americans did not come here to the New World in order to stay mired in the wars of the Old, and yet from the beginnings of this republic, and long before, we were deeply involved in international power struggles. We had to be -- from the French and Indian Wars to the arrival of the French fleet off Yorktown to the present day.

It was John Quincy Adams who famously said that, while America's heart would always be with those seeking freedom in the world, "she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." But what happens when the monster comes searching for us, as on September 11, 2001? Then there is little choice but to strike back, and clean out its nest so it cannot endanger us -- or others -- again. Even if that means establishing a whole new order of governance in a distant and very different land. As uncomfortable as Americans find foreign entanglements.

Nobody ever said it would be easy, nor is it natural, for a republic to assume the continuing burdens of empire -- only necessary in this case. Once again that burden falls heaviest on the fighting men and women of the U.S. armed forces. And on their families. There are not enough thanks in the world to recognize their valor.

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