- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008


President Bush laughed about the size-10 shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist on Dec. 14.

But laughter at the “farewell kiss” heard across the Arab world is a warning, not an inside joke. Mr. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were meeting to sign an agreement for a U.S. troop withdrawal by 2011, but three more years is still too long for many Iraqis. The rushed withdrawal and the rude boot out, however, do not necessarily portend humiliation for the United States or political chaos for Iraq.

The Obama administration might yet salvage U.S. relations with Iraqis and other Arabs. Mr. Bush and the neoconservatives followed a World War II script of non-appeasement, total victory and stabilization through military occupation, warning us that only a hard line would avoid another Vietnam. But history suggests that President-elect Barack Obama should take a page from a different war. Lessons from World War I offer reason to think that a speedy withdrawal can promote democracy, good will and even peace in the Middle East.

For 90 years, Arab politics has been driven by bitterness over the betrayal of their claims to sovereignty after World War I. At the Paris Peace talks in January 1919, Britain and France ignored Arab demands and carved up the Ottoman Empire. They claimed that European occupation would teach Arabs the art of self-government. Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine went to Britain; Syria and Lebanon went to France.

Occupation was not only humiliating, it also was a failure. None of these Arab countries emerged into independence in the 1950s with a stable, democratic government. Indeed, they lagged behind independent Turkey in political and economic development. Arabs blamed European occupation, and they since have viewed American intervention with equal suspicion.

Analogies to World War II proved disastrously wrong in Iraq, not just in the false comparison of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, but also in the false belief that occupation would promote nation-building. Success in nation-building in Germany and Japan was built on the basis of a pre-existing middle class, an industrial base and recent democratic institutions.

As John Dower of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued before the 2003 invasion, postcolonial Arab states like Iraq don’t enjoy these conditions and are poor candidates for a Marshall Plan-style occupation. And according to David Edelstein, author of “Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation,” the American occupation of Germany and Japan in 1945 was tolerated only because those societies feared the Soviets more. Germans and Japanese did not have the bitter memories of colonial rule as Iraqis did. The social and economic disarray caused by Americans’ poor planning only added to Iraqis’ impatience.

American interests in Iraq and the Arab world would be better served by turning the clock back to the end of World War I. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson promised that the Great War should bring forth democracy and that every small nation had the right to self-determination.

Wilson was a rock star of his age, much as Mr. Obama has become in ours. This is a moment of opportunity that Americans must not squander a second time. Seizing the moment now can do much to recall that historical high-water mark of American prestige in the Arab world.

Returning to Wilson’s vision also offers hope that long-term political stability - and even an indigenous form of democracy - will follow our troop withdrawal. World War I teaches us that Arabs don’t need to be taught democratic values, they just need the political space to put them into practice.

In 1920, defying European plans for colonization, Arabs built a constitutional regime by themselves and for themselves when they met at Damascus. The Syrian Congress drew delegates from what are now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It declared an independent Syrian-Arab kingdom with a bill of rights and an elected legislature with powers to balance those of King Faisal. That constitutional regime was bulldozed when French tanks occupied Damascus on July 25, 1920.

As long as the French and British ruled, the demand to restore sovereignty drew Arab political energy like a magnet. Little of the nitty-gritty work of nation-building occurred. Only after European withdrawal did such political work begin.

In Lebanon, Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians agreed on a National Pact in 1943, when the French were forced out. Syrians wrote new constitutions and engaged in democratic politics in the mid-1950s. Only after Iraqis overthrew their corrupt, pro-British monarchy in 1958 could contending political movements openly battle one another and so begin to define a regime.

When Arabs call for respect of their rights, they are calling for the return of what they saw stolen that day in Damascus almost 90 years ago. When Mr. al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr call for respect of Iraqi sovereignty, they voice a political value with deep historical roots.

The Obama administration can use our withdrawal from Iraq to nurture political stability and democracy in Arab countries by respecting their sovereignty, their indigenous democratic heritage and their long-postponed inclusion in the community of sovereign nations and international law.

Elizabeth F. Thompson is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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