- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

There was no mistaking the tone of concern in the statements from some of the troubled country’s most trusted leaders. “I am uneasy and apprehensive,” one wrote, “more so than during the war….”

The end of one conflict had led only to another and even graver crisis. The war was over, but chaos persisted. Freedom had been won, but would it bring in its wake only confusion and disorder? The signs were not good:

The occupying power had agreed to withdraw at the war’s end, but was holding on to its outposts.

The army had been disbanded, but there was no work for all the dismissed troops. Angry and desperate, they roamed the country, marched on government offices and demanded the pay they had been promised.

The economy might be improving, but it was still in tatters. Depression alternated with inflation. It wasn’t clear whether the new currency would take hold or just add to the chaos. Rebellion was afoot.

Trust in the new government waned, and people wondered if it would ever take hold.

A new constitution was in the offing, but even if it materialized, would anything change?

The world was watching. All knew the future would be shaped by the success — or failure — of this experiment in freedom. Would it prove a model for other nations — or just a failed illusion?

No wonder George Washington told John Jay he was uneasy and apprehensive, more so than during the Revolutionary War.

Historians would later coin a name for those years between the end of the American Revolution and the first government under the new Constitution: The Critical Period.

Today in Iraq, its people wonder if their own critical period will ever end, or if they’ll just sink back into the alternating anarchy and dictatorship endemic in the rest of the Arab world.

Will there really be elections in Iraq, self-government, a constitution that ensures both majority rule and minority rights? Or will the Americans, tiring of the task, pull out and leave another country in the lurch?

Much depends on whether this country keeps its promises. But if we let the Kurds and Shi’ites elect their own people to high office, they might go their separate ways, warns the State Department, and Iraq would splinter.

So? Call it states’ rights. Iraq was a wholly artificial construct to begin with, when the British conjured it up to find a place for an Arab prince to rule. Provinces that reflect tribal loyalties and ethnic affinities would at least be based in reality.

Besides, the Kurds largely govern themselves already, and the Shi’ites are not far behind. Granting both a reasonable measure of autonomy would send the clearest of messages to the Sunnis: Keep the peace and you, too, may govern yourselves.

Why this abstract devotion to a centralized Iraq on our diplomats’ part? It seems to be one of those fixed ideas that has never been considered practically.

Wherever a measure of peace and stability have been restored in Iraq, let a measure of self-government follow. Only require respect for basic rights: freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, equality of the sexes, free trade, the rule of law, judicial review… and let Iraq’s different cultures go their different ways. Even if theirs are not our ways.

There is more than one route to freedom, and each nation must find its own or fail to find it at all. Freedom cannot be imported, or imposed by decree. It can only be fostered in harmony with a society’s own culture, character and circumstances.

Consider the introduction of democracy to Japan under its emperor and a second, American one named Douglas MacArthur. It was a perfect match: The general’s imperial temperament made him a perfect choice for the job. The peaceful rehabilitation of Japan may have been his greatest achievement in a life devoted to the arts of war.

The general understood and respected the culture he was dealing with even as he transformed it. If only we had such a commanding figure in charge of Iraq today.

Or consider the decades-long reconstruction and unification of Germany, which found itself occupied by four different powers after the Second World War. Or the even longer history of Colonial America. Not all democracies develop alike. So let Iraq be Iraq — so long as it is a free Iraq.

Finally, the United Nations’ Kofi Annan and his team of experts in delay say the Iraqis won’t be ready for free elections this year. Considering the secretary-general’s own record at failing to safeguard human rights around the globe — from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Tibet to, yes, Iraq itself — that should cinch it. Let the Iraqis vote. Let freedom ring. Soon.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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