As American forces collide with the scattered remnants of Saddam Hussein's demoralized army, two of President Bush's broader objectives in the war are on a collision course as well. On the one hand, President Bush called for removal of Saddam Hussein's murderous regime, to be replaced by one that does not threaten the United States. On the other hand, the president and prominent neo-conservatives have called for a democratic revolution in the region, starting with the free election of a democratic government in Iraq. But democratic elections and a U.S.-friendly regime do not necessarily go together.
Hussein's supporters are scattered hopelessly in pockets around the country of Iraq. A few men fight on in vain, absent any direction from an Iraqi leadership that has been driven into oblivion. This much is clear: Saddam Hussein's regime is doomed. But it is far from clear whether the United States will discard its commitment to democracy in exchange for ensuring that a friendly Iraqi government is installed in Baghdad. Thus the outcome of this conflict between competing goals may be as important as victory in the war. Hundreds of millions of people in the Arab and Muslim world are watching, and the United States' standing, already at historic lows, hangs in the balance.
Sadly, given the United States' history in the region, those who doubt the Bush administration will allow Iraqis to choose their own government have grounds for skepticism. In neighboring Iran, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of nationalist leader Muhammad Mosaddeq in 1953, and then supported the autocratic Shah. The anger and resentment felt toward the United States for its support of the Shah's secular regime ultimately exploded in the Islamic revolution of early 1979 that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers to power.
In more recent history, and in other parts of the world, the United States has similarly pledged to support democratically elected governments, but has then exercised its power to void the results if the representatives chosen by the people were deemed incompatible with Washington's interests. In Bosnia, where one poll found that 85 percent of voters were unlikely to vote for a candidate from another ethnic group, America's top nation-builder in the country, Jacques Klein, explained that he intended to create a multi-ethnic state "whether the people like it or not." Officials tasked with rebuilding the country removed elected officials from office, and then manipulated elections by disqualifying certain individuals, and by spending millions in support of preferred candidates.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, the United States' favored candidate, Hamid Karzai, was elected as that nation's transition president in June 2002, winning an impressive 1,295 out of 1,575 votes cast. Critics inconveniently noted that Karzai's victory was preordained by the withdrawal of his two main opponents, Mohammad Zaher Shah, the nation's former king, and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The Bush administration hopes that Iraqis will replace Saddam Hussein's secular socialism with a new breed of secular liberalism. This ideal government would be committed to free enterprise, respect the rights of women, be tolerant toward ethnic and religious minorities, be favorably disposed towards Israel, and open and hospitable for American diplomats and businessmen.
But what if Shi'a Muslims, who comprise over 60 percent of the total population of Iraq, elect a leader with ties to Iran - a democracy, but one in which religious mullahs dominate political life, suppress dissent, are building nuclear weapons, and fund terrorism? What if ethnic Kurds, emboldened by their relative autonomy from the last 12 years, choose leaders committed to full-fledged statehood, independent of Iraq? What if a host of candidates split the votes of Shiites and Kurds, while minority Sunni Muslims unite behind a former Baath Party official?
In short, if a democratic election, reflecting the honest and freely expressed wishes of the Iraqi people, produces a leader deemed insufficiently committed to Washington's goals, the Bush administration will be forced to affirm or reject its alleged attachment to the principle of democracy.
When protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago taunted their opponents with the chant "The whole world is watching," there was more than a little hyperbole in their claim. Thirty-five years ago television was prevalent in the United States, but it was just beginning to blanket the globe.
Times have changed. Today, hundreds of millions of television viewers in the Arab and Muslim world watch live broadcasts from sympathetic satellite news networks that didn't exist even 10 years ago. And if the Bush administration engineers an un-free election in post-Hussein Iraq, limited to candidates pre-approved by Washington, many will see this as confirmation of their long-held suspicions that this entire war had nothing to do with spreading democracy.
The whole world is watching.