Iraq has held its first free elections, ever. That needs to be said right up front, because that event is the salient point for everything positive to come in the region for the next decade. If you don't understand that essential fact, or if you are still unwilling to accept it for the crucial catalyst it is, don't bother reading the rest of this article, because you just won't get it.
That said, it's important to recognize that mistakes have been made, on both sides of the aisle in U.S. Politics, about what has happened in Iraq, and what it all means to have deposed Saddam Hussein and set up a functional, if as yet unsteady, democratic republic. It's important to observe, as Bill Roggio noted today, that Al Qaeda was unable to stop the election, or even slow it down to any effective degree. But it's also crucial to recognize that the new government of Iraq does not yet have a face; Allawi was the Interim Prime Minister, after all, and even Ghazi al-Yawer is just a temp. Until we know who is running the Sovereign Iraqi government, we can't really say what course that nation is set.
Then again, it would be a great fool, who would think the U.S. is going to just leave Iraq in the hands of an indecisive or mendacious politician; the Marines have bought Iraqi freedom in blood, and the President is of a mind like their own.
That's part of why Iraq is not Vietnam. It never was, actually. Vietnam is an Asian coastal country, was a Soviet vassal state in the North, and was influenced by the Communist government of China, if only in its hatred for it. Vietnam was also abused by the French government which considered it no more than property, a colony in name and a commodity in purpose. The U.S. was restricted by a foolish treaty with France, collaboration with a corrupt indigenous regime, and a people who considered the Americans to be enemies in both intent and actions.
In comparison, the Iraqis recognized the United States as a fair partner, eager for their freedom even more than its own advantage. The U.S. acted with a free hand, and for the noble purpose or expelling a tyrant, and hunting down murderers. Even those Iraqis suspicious of U.S. motives, saw advantage in cooperation with the Marines; the choice was always clear - the old way of Arab cronyism and traditional corruption, or the chance of freedom and self-determination offered by the Americans. The terrorists came from outside the country, as increasingly it became obvious that only Iraqis who hated Americans were the old Baathists who had lost everything.
Of course, there are many other factors to Iraq's condition. For one thing, where Vietnam was a proxy being manipulated by both China and the USSR to take the US military down a peg and establish regional hegemony in the subcontinent, Iraq is not a proxy but extremely vital in its own right. The "War for Oil" people got the idea partly right, but it was the Islamist lust for Iraq's refining capacity which motivated a dozen terrorist groups to establish bases in Iraq, not any corporate greed on America's part; as a reminder, check out gas prices in 2003 and now.
But all of this is beside the point. An appalling number of people do not understand Arab History, but then again, not that many people have a firm grasp of US History. In the case of Iraq, the simplest way to cover the basics, is to touch on the milestones:
* Islam is much more than a religion. Most of the region converted to Islam under Mohammed and his successors in the 7th and 8th Centuries, not only in faith but in government. 'Jihad' was as much regime change as religious expansion. That remains a major influence in Arab politics, as Secular government is largely seen as opposition to Sharia, or Islamic law.
* Following the death of Mohammed in 632 AD, a number of sects rose in dispute over the authority in Islam. This led to a system of Caliphates, a combination of religious and secular authority which was set up on a quasi-national scale.
* In the late 11th Century, an Islamic order of Assassins rose, from which the word itself is derived. The Hashashin originally served one Hassan i Sabbah, who used his religious charisma to dictate murder on demand, especially of his political opponents. The Ismaili (as they were also called) found the use of terror an effective tool to sway governments and influence. This is not only important as an early instance of political terrorism, but it is also important to understand the stature of Baghdad in Islamic commerce and politics; an urban center not only represented a financial resource, but all aspects of life, as merchants found it necessary to travel to the cities, and so did pilgrims on the Haaj, and all manner of nomads. The region of Iraq, therefore, has a long history in the Arab world of influence and trade.
* The Ottoman Empire, which lasted from the 14th through the early 20th Centuries, was an interesting mix of secular and religious authority, with clear divisions between the Mosques and Palaces. It's worth noting that the Ottoman Empire ran the Arab World with relatively little dissent, falling generally to outside interference from Europe. It's not far-fetched to say that the instability which Iraq has known since 1914, was brought about in large part by French and German colonial policies.
* Following World War I, Britain and France found themselves divvying up territory in the Middle East, with Britain drawing the boundaries for Iraq. Britain also attempted to establish a protectorate in Iran, but found its hands full with a rebellion that killed 450 British soldiers and over 10,000 Iraqis in 1920. In short, the artificial boundaries and severing of cultural and tribal ties led to many uprisings, largely by outraged Kurds, until World War 2.
* In World War 2, Iraq was already a major petroleum refining source, and as such was coveted by all parties. If you recall those impressive tank battles, you may recall that it was no coincidence that Rommel and Montgomery were so determined to control that space of territory.
* After World War 2, the U.S. set up governments in a number of places, but pretty much left the Middle East as it had been set up, which is to say, as the various meddlers arranged. Iraq had technically been independent since 1932, but remained under Britain's protection through World War 2. When Britain pulled out troops in 1946, the Soviet Union moved in. Supposedly, the USSR was "protecting" Iran and Iraq from Kurdish uprisings, which also led to Soviet occupation of Iran (albeit briefly; Truman demanded the Soviets leave Iran on threat of atomic bombing, and the Soviets puleld out of Iran, but not Iraq). The Soviets set up a proxy state in Iraq, which lasted in various degrees until the first Gulf War in 1991.
* The Baath Party came to power originally in Syria as a militant Socialist movement, and remains in firm control of that country. The Baathists took control in Iraq in 1963, and a young thug named Saddam Hussein earned his spurs as a torturer and enforcer through the party. Saddam assassinated the figurehead President and took his place in 1979, invading Iran shortly thereafter.
* The U.S. did provide arms to Iraq during the early part of the Iran-Iraq War, but stopped when it was discovered that the Iraqis were using dual-use chemicals to make Chemical Weapons. Bearing in mind the threat posed by the Revolutionary Islamofascists at the time (the 1979-81 U.S. Embassy Hostage siege was a good example of Iran's new style of diplomacy), backing an enemy of radical Islam was not unwise, although the U.S. was quick to close the supplies when the nature of Hussein's tactics became apparent. It's important to recognize, also, that when the U.S. stopped selling weapons to Iraq, the USSR, France, and Germany stepped up their supplies. Those contracts continued to the 2003 invasion.
What this means, in total, is that Iraq has not enjoyed anything like true Sovereignty, much less a representative government. The initial cynicism to the U.S. invasion was understandable, especially given the many promises made in the past. But the Interim government has done a good job so far, and the U.S. forces have done a great job or restoring confidence in basic services. The 72% estimated turnout in the weekend elections proves the courage and hope of the Iraqi people, as well as the absolute determination not to miss this chance at freedom on every level. Protests against regimes in Iran, Syria, and Egypt show that the rest of the Arab world is watching, and learning the same lessons.
President Bush is certainly not perfect. But his purpose in invading Iraq was not at all the selfish or vindictive sort his enemies have claimed, and his success there will be the cornerstone to further accomplishments in th eregion, provided his successor does not lose his nerve or forget the ideals due the people of Iraq.
There is also good cooperation between the different political parties, so far, in Iraq, and there is a good lesson for America's politicians to learn. The one way in which Iraq could end as our war in Vietnam ended, is if the weak and cowardly gain office and run away with the job unfinished. That is how Iraq and America differ. In Iraq, the cowardky wear masks and use guns to subvert Democracy. Here they run for office and use speeches to tear down support for the effort, and pretend solidarity while using slander to hide their corruption.
As Iraq learns Democracy from America, we should in turn learn Courage and Fortitude from Iraq.