The catastrophe of Iraq is a humbling lesson for anyone with the arrogance to believe it is possible to dictate the course of history.
The Arab Spring, too, has been a humbling lesson. Dreams of freedom, nurtured over the years in the shadow of dictatorship, have morphed into a nightmare of war and oppression. Democracy is an idea that seldom thrives on the killing fields.
The latest news from Iraq tells us that the Islamic State, the organization that had mounted a jihadist rebellion in Syria and then swept into Iraq, is conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing in northern and western Iraq that threatens everyone who does not share the extreme beliefs of the movement. That includes Shiites, moderate Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and other minorities. Yazidis belong to a Muslim sect condemned by the Islamic State, and thousands have fled their homes, congregating on a mountain in northern Iraq where their lives are in peril.
Believers in democracy find unfolding events in the Middle East challenging, troubling, tragic. The United States entered Iraq in 2003 with the blithe notion of planting a new democracy in the heart of the Arab world. In doing so it toppled the brutal, aging dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who had maintained a form of order in Iraq founded on ruthless oppression. Like the Assad family in Syria, Saddam was the leader of a secular Muslim party that opposed extremist Islamic movements.
For decades, autocrats had maintained order of this sort in the Middle East — Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria, Saddam in Iraq, Gadhafi in Libya, the Saud family in Saudi Arabia, among others.
But dictators breed their own undoing because of their cruelties and the narrow base of their power, and so it is inevitable that time will erode their hold on power and rebellion will arise. People yearn to breathe free. Thus, the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, seemed to be an inspiring portent of progress toward democracy. The old structures were cracking. In Syria a rebellion touched off by the murder of protesters challenged the dictatorship of Bashar Assad.
But where the old structures give way, the vision of freedom often gives way with stunning rapidity to chaos. And chaos has its own terrors, leading to the rise of new forms of dictatorship. The process has been known to us since the French Revolution, which decapitated a king, established democratic institutions, which gave way to the Terror and the rise of the emperor Napoleon.
The United States assumed it had the power to create a democratic revolution in Iraq. Instead it unleashed a civil war that has created divisions so severe that the Islamic State has been able to establish a rule so severe it brings to mind the Taliban of Afghanistan or genocidal movements in Cambodia or elsewhere. The Washington Post quoted an Iraqi Christian leader who said, “Even Genghis Khan didn’t do this.”
The United States appears to have made peace with the new Egyptian autocracy led by the former general, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. So much for democracy. Even the Egyptian people, who elected el-Sissi after he and the army had ousted the elected government, craved order over democratic processes.
As Americans promote democratic ideals, they must reckon with the difficulties that democracy faces when chaos overwhelms the dreams of freedom and equality. It is not in the power of any nation to write the script of history, and history shows that any nation that thinks it can is likely to unleash the whirlwind — as the United States has done in Iraq.
The forces at large in the Middle East today show lesser or greater degrees of humanity, but few are democratic. It is the job of the democracies to promote humane values in a cruel world. The Yazidis of Iraq cowering on a mountain, as Kurds did a generation ago, do not deserve persecution or extermination.
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