I read with great interest William Tucker’s Tuesday column in which he discussed my recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about democracy in Iraq and specifically Mithal al-Alusi, a liberal member of the Iraqi Parliament.
In Mr. Tucker’s piece, he compares Mr. al-Alusi to members of a “thin, Westernized elite” in Vietnam “who were themselves essentially aliens in their own country.”
Mr. al-Alusi, a Sunni Muslim, is a homegrown Iraqi, Haditha-born and Baghdad-bred. He did spend part of his adulthood in exile in Germany to escape being killed for protesting Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses, but I do not believe this disqualifies him from being a bona fide Iraqi or a good source of information about his people.
Mr. Tucker’s larger point seems to be that Iraqis are fundamentally too steeped in tribal divisions and hatreds to embrace democracy, and the liberal values necessary to make democracy work. In my interviews with Mr. al-Alusi, I asked him questions that reflected these concerns (is democracy in Iraq realistic and do the people actually want it, or are they more interested in killing each other?)
His answers were illuminating and, I believe, provide a prism for understanding what is happening in Iraq that is all but absent in mainstream media coverage.
Mr. al-Alusi is one of a dozen politicians in the Iraqi Parliament that he considers his fellow liberals. While that may be a small portion of the Parliament, he believes his presence and that of his fellow liberals actually speaks to the Iraqi people’s willingness to embrace liberal values, for those who were elected overcame vicious campaigns of propaganda and intimidation directed against them, and a huge disparity between their budgets and those of Islamist candidates.
What was the reason for this disparity? Mr. al-Alusi says that well prior to the Iraqi elections last December, Iran had infiltrated the political process by pouring funds into the coffers of Islamist candidates via non-governmental organizations. Also via “donations” to nongovernmental organizations, he says Iran and Saudi Arabia had begun to exert widespread influence over the contents of Iraqi media, through which they tarnished liberal candidates.
Mr. al-Alusi, for instance, was branded an “Israeli agent” on Iraqi TV. The fact that, as he puts it, “even with this [label], I am winning thousands of votes in Iraq,” suggests there is a real constituency of Iraqis who not only favor democracy but also liberal values.
Basically, the impression Mr. al-Alusi shares is that the vast, silent majority of Iraqis want peace, want security, prefer democracy — even with the painful compromises it entails — and prefer making those compromises to either being victims or perpetrators of sectarian violence, but that the violence in Iraq is essentially a proxy war being driven by outside forces, including Iran and al-Qaeda, funding a minority of extremists within the country in an attempt to create an all-out civil war. The ultimate goal? To undermine the U.S. policy of promoting freedom in the Arab world.
Most Iraqis, al-Alusi believes, remain intimidated by Islamists and unsure as to the U.S. commitment to the region. He believes that there is a future for democracy in Iraq, and for Iraqi alliance with the civilized world, but that the U.S. must be much more bold, energetic, and consistent in supporting liberal politicians and institutions in Iraq, including the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi oil and banking industries.
He told me, “American politicians must not be ashamed to say…’We are going to support [Iraqi] reformers. We are not going to leave them alone against the well-organized fascists and fascist regimes.'”
He also said, “If America loses here, it is the end of American interests, the end of peace, and the end of human rights in the Middle East and in Iraq, of course. And this is the beginning of Iranian control, Hezbollah control, Hamas control — they will be stronger and stronger and we will [have] lost everything.”
When I read him John Murtha’s quote that “Only the Iraqis can solve the problem in Iraq. They’re fighting with each other, and our troops are caught in between, and I say it’s time to redeploy,” he responded that the idea that “if U.S. troops leave it will be safer is totally wrong. With respect to this gentleman, he is trying to understand Iraq from the media…If Iran wins the game here, we’ll have a huge terrorist wave in the Mid-east, Europe, and the United States.”
I share Mr. Tucker’s aversion to this and all foreign entanglements and would like nothing better than see an end in sight, especially for the sake of our brave U.S. troops in harm’s way. Questions about tactics and strategy in Iraq still remain, but to abandon people like Mr. al-Alusi and the other liberals elected to Parliament as well as their constituencies, thereby handing the region to terrorists, would be nothing short of a moral and strategic disaster for the U.S.
Heather Robinson is a New York-based journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer.