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The Stuff Nations Are Built On


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January 31, 2005, 8:47 a.m.

The Stuff Nations Are Built On

By Johah Goldberg

Iraqis now have their own heroic story of resistance.

The good news is that two of my favorite writers were wrong. Or, to speak more broadly, the good news is that two ideas they represented and popularized are proving to be wrong.

Idea number one: Just weeks after 9/11, Fareed Zakaria wrote an essay in Newsweek explaining that Francis Fukuyama's notion that we had reached the "end of history" was proven wrong by those horrific attacks. I don't want to get lost in the weeds on what Fukuyama was getting at when he said we'd reached "the end of history," but Fukuyama's basic point was that liberal democracy — i.e. rule of law, elections, a regime of rights, basic popular sovereignty, etc. — had settled a certain group of political arguments that had defined history (in a Hegelian sense). He wasn't saying there wouldn't be dictatorships or tyrannies ever again, merely that the basic argument about the best — or least worst — way to organize political arrangements had basically been solved. The "end" of history wasn't a world in which clocks stopped and roulette wheels froze in mid-spin. The "end" meant that this specific debate was over. The defeat of totalitarianism as symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the abandonment of serious Marxism by the Chinese) represented the end of totalitarianism as an idea — "that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy.''

We can argue about all that another time. Where Zakaria was wrong was in his view that Islamic fundamentalism's war — as symbolized by the 9/11 attacks — on liberal democracy proved that history was not ending at all. Zakaria wrote:

In his brilliant essay, Francis Fukuyama actually considered the threat of radical Islam but pointed out correctly that, unlike communism, it has no ideological appeal beyond the borders of the Muslim world. Radical Islam as an ideology, in other words, posed no threat to the West. But we pose a threat to it, one its followers feel with blinding intensity. It turns out it takes only one side to restart History.

At the time I wrote a column criticizing Zakaria, arguing that Islamic fundamentalism is an opponent to liberal democracy, not a competitor. I received a pile of email from smart people saying that they didn't really see the difference between "competitors" and "opponents." But that difference is everything.

On Sunday, the fundamentalists offered their best argument against liberal democracy: We will cut off your heads, murder your children, and butcher your wives if you vote. Poll workers were told their homes would be blown up if they didn't quit. The Islamists' chief spokesman in Iraq, Musab al-Zarqawi was very straightforward: "We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," Zarqawi declared in a statement. "Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion," he said, and that is "against the rule of God." But Zarqawi understood that those words — honest as they were — had no persuasive power. Indeed, the "insurgents" rejected persuasion. Threatening to slaughter men, women, and children if you don't get your way is not an appeal to hopes or aspirations. It is not competition, it is opposition. And therein lies all the difference in the world.

Which brings me to an important detour: Is there a more execrable, horrid parody of an American statesman alive today than Ted Kennedy? Yes, yes, of course he's a joke; a family name wrapped around a bundle of appetite, cynicism, and asininity. But he matters precisely because his party and the media imbue him with a moral stature now wholly severed from the admirable traditions and ideas we associate with the president who swore we would pay any price and bear any burden to defend the survival of liberty.

Three days before the Iraqi election, this gaseous dybbuk of democracy proclaimed that America was losing — or "not winning" — the battle for the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis even as the barbarians were scrawling on walls that anyone who voted would be slaughtered. Does Kennedy truly understand the meaning of the phrase, "winning the hearts and minds"? You do not win a man's heart or mind by threatening to kill him if he expresses what is in his heart or mind. To pick this moment to say that the battle was equally joined by the squads of foreign terrorists and domestic thugs — whose only "agenda" is to retrieve the keys to the dungeons and restore the rape rooms — is to do incalculable and deliberate violence to the effort to bring democracy to Iraq and to the ideals he claims to be speaking for. To suggest that we should look to the Arab League to usher in democracy in Iraq is to give polysyllabic pseudo-intellectual form to the substance of whoopee-cushion exhalations.

Senator Kennedy gave that speech either to deliberately undermine the elections or without much concern that he was doing precisely that. To declare in advance that America should leave Iraq to fend for itself against the thugs promising to murder those who want to be free was in effect to tell the Iraqi people not to stick out their necks out for democracy. Shame on him.

Fortunately, the majority of Iraqi voters didn't hear him or listen to him.  They turned out in what appear for the moment to be heroic numbers.  Samir Hassan, a 32-year-old man who lost his leg in a car bomb blast three months ago, showed-up. "I would have crawled here if I had to. I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me. Today I am voting for peace," he said. A polling station in Baghdad re-opened after a suicide bombing because the voters would not be deterred.

And that brings me to the second idea that was shellacked Sunday. In May of 2004, David Brooks wrote a much-discussed column titled "For Iraqis to Win, the U.S. Must Lose." In it he made an eloquent case that Americans snatched the victory from Iraqis. We defeated Saddam, not the Iraqi people. If they were going to take pride in their liberation they would need to feel some ownership of it. (It's worth noting this was part of our original plan — to use Iraqi forces to liberate their own country.) "We didn't understand the tragic irony that our power is also our weakness," wrote Brooks. "As long as we seemed so mighty, others, even those we were aiming to assist, were bound to revolt. They would do so for their own self-respect. In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves. The fact that they had no means to do so is beside the point."

Brooks continued,

Now, looking ahead, we face another irony. To earn their own freedom, the Iraqis need a victory. And since it is too late for the Iraqis to have a victory over Saddam, it is imperative that they have a victory over us. If the future textbooks of a free Iraq get written, the toppling of Saddam will be vaguely mentioned in one clause in one sentence. But the heroic Iraqi resistance against the American occupation will be lavishly described, page after page. For us to succeed in Iraq, we have to lose.

My hope and instinct is that this was all proven wrong on Sunday. The Iraqis now have their heroic story of resistance. Americans could not vote for them. We could not walk down Iraq's most dangerous highway in their place. Iraqis seized their own future. They have their narrative, their symbols, their victory. John Kerry grumpily says we shouldn't "over-hype" the election, which is just one more grain of sand on the vast beach of reasons why he deserves to remain the junior senator from Ted Kennedy's state. We should hype this to the hilts. Not as a Republican or "neoconservative" I-told-you-so — the pro-war side has gotten too many important things wrong to ever blithely use I-told-you-so and Iraq in the same sentence — but rather as Americans: We should hype this because the heroic effort of millions of Iraqis to un-pry the clenched fists of murderers is the stuff nations are built on. Our public diplomacy requires such hyping.

This — and not, as we hoped, the toppling of Saddam's statue — will be, or can be if we work at it, recognized as the event the new Iraqi nation will be built on. Of course, many boycotted the vote and others voted in ways we will find at best highly inconvenient. But the civil-rights struggle pitted Americans against Americans, as did the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. Politics is about choosing symbols. We've chosen ours. They will choose theirs. And this is a great one.


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