- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Typographical or spelling errors, however embarrassing, can be corrected in the next edition. More serious than mere mistakes, and harder to pin down, are misjudgments. Everything in a newspaper column may be spelled and punctuated correctly, yet a year later, the gist of it can cry out for rethinking.

For example, for some months now I’ve been urging Wesley Clark to take the high road in his presidential campaign, set himself apart from his rivals, raise the level of public discourse, be a candidate of consensus rather than conflict, a uniter and not a divider … all that high-minded stuff. In short, be an Eisenhower.

Only gradually has it begun to dawn on me that being an Eisenhower may not be a matter of adopting a certain campaign strategy. Or the result of any conscious choice at all. A leader either is, or he isn’t. It’s a matter of temperament, character, experience, judgment … and Wesley K. Clark just may not have all that in him. I may have been asking for the impossible.

Then there is Iraq, which still crackles and simmers in the news. The speed of the assault that brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime stunned and impressed. It could no more have been anticipated than the slow, agonizing grind of the postwar war that has followed. That should inspire some self-examination — and probing questions. For example:

Have we confused the means with the ends in Iraq? When did it become a war for democracy instead of one designed to assure our national security? And just where does one end and the other begin?

This war in Iraq is only the latest, and the most important, front in the war on terror. Democracy can be a great weapon in that war, but only one of many in the service of what should be the overriding goal: the security of this country and its allies and a stable, peaceful world.

When democracy becomes destructive of those ends, when it prolongs a war instead of shortening it, when we insist on imposing a Western system of government in the mysterious East, no matter how much disruption it may cause, it is time to step back and think again about just what our goal is in Iraq.

Is it to impose an American-style democracy on a society without an American-style history of civil institutions? Or is it to assure Iraq will not threaten us, or its neighbors, in the future? Those goals can be complementary — or they can conflict. When they do, it’s time to ask which is more important.

This country had every right to defend itself and its allies against the threat Saddam Hussein posed — or would like to have posed. It is nonsense to pretend his capture has not made the United States (or the Iraqi people) any safer. He would always have been a danger in that volatile part of the world, and maybe beyond. Any nostalgia for Saddam’s regime is sadly misplaced.

But that doesn’t mean we should insist on remaking Iraq in our own image. The price of hubris is still humiliation.

If Iraq becomes a peaceful nation, perhaps even an ally, it should not matter to us if that change is based on a humane interpretation of Islamic law — one that respects the rights of women and minorities and the peace of the region — or some equally authentic, deeply rooted system in that tribal society. Like ethnic loyalty. A modicum of respect for other cultures now might save us much pain and disappointment later.

Why not allow each of Iraq’s cohesive ethnic groups self-government to the extent they can keep the peace? To the extent they can’t, it should be made clear they will remain under occupation for as long as it takes to establish a decent order.

The Kurds and Shi’ites already govern themselves to a welcome degree. The Sunnis begin to get the message: They, too, can determine their own fate in this new Iraq — but only if they cease to endanger the peace.

In place of old rhetoric about democracy, let us opt for a new realism in foreign affairs. Because the overriding objective of any national security policy should be national security.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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