Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2004 / 13 Teves 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Second thoughts at the turn of the year | 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 post-war war that has followed. Which 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 over-riding 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.

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Is it to impose an American-style democracy on a society without an American-style history of civil institutions? Or is it to assure that 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 that 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 Hussein'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 make no difference 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 a lot of pain and disappointment later.

In the past, Americans have found that the institutions of occupied societies - like the Japanese monarchy - can have their uses in preserving the peace. The same goes for the ways of the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq - all of whom were lumped together into one artificial state by the British colonial office after another cruel war almost a century ago. (Iraq got its unnatural border, it used to be said, because Winston Churchill's hand twitched when he was redrawing the map of the Middle East.)

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 Shiites 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 over-riding objective of any national security policy should be national security.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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