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The Last Casualty

The tragic end to a liberal Iraq.

The moment one lands at Baghdad Airport, all the political arguments, all the philosophical certainties, all the things that Iraq has come to represent in the American imagination simply melt away. What's left is a place--a not very nice place. From the backseat of a beat-up sedan steered by a gun-toting Iraqi driver, the streets of Baghdad look no different than they did during my last trip here six months ago—except for the large number of Iraqi police, who seem to be everywhere. The smell of burning trash is ubiquitous, as is the sound of gunfire. Sheep wander down one street; a billboard-size wanted ad for Abu Musab Al Zarqawi hangs above another. A line of cars waiting for gasoline snakes around the block. Pairs of Blackhawk helicopters and Apache gunships roar overhead (one flying alone usually means bad news—a medevac or some other emergency). The war goes on.

If Iraq the place has for some time now borne scant resemblance to Iraq the abstraction, the distance only became greater with President Bush's inaugural address. The president spoke not only of supporting democracy, but of "support[ing] the growth of democratic movements and institutions." To the world's "democratic reformers," Bush pledged, "America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country." But in Iraq, the very centerpiece of the U.S. campaign to export democracy, "democratic movements and institutions" are dying, the result of illiberalism, U.S. neglect, and, above all, sheer physical insecurity. As it grinds into its third year, the war for a liberal Iraq is destroying the dream of a liberal Iraq.

If liberal democracy--that is, a political system that protects basic rights and freedoms--is a political choice, an act of will, then someone must create and sustain it. In Iraq, however, those someones—Iraqi liberals—have been so thoroughly marginalized that Sunday's elections, which should be the crowning achievement of Iraqi liberalism, may instead signal its end. As well as empowering religious conservatives, the elections will showcase a cartoon version of democracy, a process of choosing leaders and not much more. The liberal component of liberal democracy—to the extent that it ever took hold in Iraq—has all but evaporated. Its dissipation can be measured in opinion polls, which show dramatic declines in support for a secular state and civil liberties, as well as in the weakness of Iraq's civil society and the strength of its sectarian attachments. It can be measured in the popularity of illiberal political parties. It can even be measured in the meager sums Washington has allotted Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and liberal activists. Most of all, it can be measured by the number of prominent Iraqi liberals—NGO leaders, secular politicians, progressive clerics, newspaper editors—who have taken refuge behind barbed-wire gates, fled the country, gone broke, or been murdered. In a country with no liberal past to draw from, where ethnic and religious identities are hardening and daily suicide-bombs and beheadings are ripping apart the thin layer of national cohesion that remains, this hardly comes as a surprise. But for anyone who hoped to see a model democracy take root in the Arab world, it comes as a profound disappointment.

Iraq's liberals—many of them former exiles—make up a small community, some of its members brave and selfless, some so far removed from everyday Iraqis that they refer to their countrymen as "them." A liberal close to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whom I will call Mujahed (he asked that I not use his real name for security reasons), agrees to meet in the lobby of the Green Zone's vast convention center. The very notion of a convention center in the midst of a war zone says something about the U.S. enterprise here—aspiring to normalcy when everything is coming apart at the seams. (Waiting one day to meet an American friend, I watch as a nattily dressed Ahmed Chalabi makes his way through the lobby, young Iraqi-Americans greeting him at every step. His transformation from a Western secularist to a champion of radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr is itself evidence of liberalism's diminished appeal.)

Mujahed meets me at the cafe on the second floor. I have been told he's a rising star, an adviser in the prime minister's office who has just landed a plum ministry post. And, apparently, he is—one after the other, well-wishers approach to greet him. Putting away his two cell phones, Mujahed, who left Iraq as a teen and lived for years in the United States, lays out the case for optimism. "Iraq is a secular state," he says. "It will always be a secular state." Liberals, he insists, not clerics, command the silent majority in Iraq. Iraqis, he adds, don't want religion in politics. "They want to put religion aside." At which point his cell phones begin to ring.Alas, the distance separating Mujahed and his contemporaries from the average Iraqi defies measurement. One can see it even in the shiny convention center, where, invisible to the elites and soldiers around them, sullen-looking Iraqi workers mop the floor. Out in the streets of Baghdad, dust-covered men wearing soiled jalabiyas, many carrying tools or pushing carts, trudge up and down the boulevards. Trash piles up along the curbs; teenagers wander about aimlessly; minaret speakers broadcast competing messages. "The liberal exiles are so far away from natural Iraqis," a cabinet adviser tells me over bread and soda at a Baghdad coffee shop. "They have chosen a lonely path."

Perhaps. But they're also burdened by the fact that, in a country with no liberal tradition, liberalism itself is a foreign concept. The peculiarities of Arab culture, decades of life under Saddam Hussein, ethnic and religious rivalries—all have been offered by way of explaining why it is that, as State Department Iraq expert Alina Romanowski has put it, "Iraq presents as unpromising a breeding ground for democracy as any in the world." Among the fed up—a not-insignificant contingent of Westerners here—one hears echoes of the famous complaint lodged over a half-century ago by John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of Jordan's Arab Legion, who groused, "We have given them self-government for which they are totally unsuited. They veer naturally toward dictatorship. Democratic institutions are promptly twisted into engines of intrigue." A more sensible version of the argument may be found in the 2002 U.N. Development Programme Arab Human Development Report, which described traditional Arab culture as being at odds with modernization, and noted the persistence in every Arab state of "a powerful executive branch that exerts significant control over all other branches of the state, being in some cases free from institutional checks and balances." Even today, that legacy casts a long shadow in Iraq, where official corruption runs rampant, Allawi governs more or less unchecked, and endless layers of bureaucracy weigh down the government. "After years of dictatorship," the adviser remarks, "Iraqis can only define the meaning of 'democracy' in a dictionary."

This presents a real problem for Iraq's liberals. The advantages of democracy, after all, routinely get lost in societies divided along ethnic and religious lines, and, in Iraq, these allegiances are rapidly crowding out all others. As a result, the very things that make for shifting majorities in liberal democracies—civic concerns, economic calculations, political preferences—have increasingly taken a backseat to the latest edict from the local mosque. The most important such edict, issued by the country's senior-most Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, urges Shia to vote next week for the United Iraqi Alliance slate of candidates, headed up by Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, a conservative cleric with close ties to Iran. The signature proposals of many candidates on the Sistani list span the entire spectrum of illiberalism, from rolling back women's rights to stipulating in the constitution that Iraq be an Islamic state.

One of the candidates on the list, Mowaffaq Al Rubaie, works out of an office in the headquarters of the Iraqi Interim Government—the IIG building, as the American soldiers who patrol the area call it. The building offers a tempting target for the insurgents and, to get to it, one must navigate layer upon layer of security guards. That Rubaie works here at all seems odd, since his place on the Sistani list and his insistence on an Islamic government in Iraq have earned him the ire of Iraqis in the U.S. orbit. It has also caused him problems in Allawi's interim government, in which he holds the title of national security adviser but has fallen out of favor with the prime minister's office.

An activist for 30 years in the Islamic Dawa Party and a former exile in Iran, Rubaie nonetheless hardly fits the American image of a theocrat. The way he describes the agenda of the Sistani list makes it sounds like an offshoot of Germany's Christian Democrats. "We want a democratic system implemented by people with moral values," he explains. "If they are devout, practicing Muslims, they can be held accountable." Islam, after all, is the "ideological, cultural, and educational background of Iraq." By contrast, he notes, "secularism, translated into Arabic, is a hated word."

Like the constituency he represents, Rubaie has a complicated relationship with the Americans. He has said, publicly, that U.S. forces should stay in Iraq. Yet he seems uneasy with the occupation, with the "cruelty to Iraqis" that he says he too often sees on display. I ask him if his ambivalence stems from an incident an Iraqi friend described to me. Last year, as Rubaie was leaving the IIG building, American soldiers at a checkpoint demanded his identification badge. Apparently Rubaie was carrying the wrong color badge and, after a tussle with the soldiers, the national security adviser wound up in the dirt, with a squad of nervous GIs shouting obscenities at him, their guns pointed at his head. "I have never felt closer to death," Rubaie says, "even in Saddam's death chambers."

Rubaie's is the reasoned voice of an electoral slate that boasts 25 candidates from the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri), 20 from Dawa, and 14 from Moqtada Al Sadr's camp. It may not be the "Iranian list," as Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has labeled it. But it's certainly not the American list, either. Rather, it's the logical consequence of representative democracy in a brittle, hollowed-out state where tribe and religion remain the basic affiliations. "It is fair to say," a team of democracy experts visiting Iraq last year concluded, "that the two largest parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, do not at present share a fundamental commitment to the kind of political system that would be defined as 'democratic' in the West." Yet they certainly support democracy's electoral math. "As Shiites, we are a majority, so democracy suits us very well," the Sistani list's Adil Abdul Mahdi said earlier this month. This is a truth that has penetrated even Shia strongholds like Sadr City, which, according to Army officers, has now become one of the safest neighborhoods in Baghdad, its residents having realized the new government will be theirs.

That the Sistani list stands poised to capture a large plurality of next week's vote is, at least to hear many Iraqi liberals tell it, largely the fault of the Americans, for whom the material from which liberal democracy is traditionally constructed—the rule of law, civil society, the protection of basic liberties—has become an afterthought. No one embodies the dashed hopes of pro-U.S. Iraqis more than Mustafa Al Kadhimiy, a kind and intelligent man in his late thirties who stands at the center of Iraq's tiny liberal network. When not pressing the American authorities here to support liberal Iraqi NGOs, activists, and media outlets, Kadhimiy writes newspaper columns and works as the director of the Iraq Memory Foundation's oral history project, interviewing Saddam's victims. Kadhimiy spends nearly all of his time in his office, where a light in the basement reveals thousands of files stacked to the ceiling. Each contains a truth many Iraqis would just as soon forget—execution orders, accounts of interrogations, evaluations of the trustworthiness of secondary school students.

In 2003, the Bush administration requested $1 million from Congress to fund the Memory Foundation. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), however, never passed the funds along. Nearly every liberal foundation in Iraq has a similar tale of bureaucratic woe. "We believe America is coming here to promote liberalism," says Kadhimiy, ticking off a litany of examples where it seems to have done exactly the reverse—shutting down Iraq's popular liberal newspaper, Sumer; ignoring the country's most liberal cleric and outspoken proponent of secular governance, Ayad Jamal Al Din; and failing to support liberal NGOs and political candidates. "Liberals and independents need outside help—the Islamic parties have millions of dollars from Iran—but the Americans do not help the liberals at all." Nonetheless, Kadhimiy continues to document Saddam's depredations, watched at every turn by insurgents. "They come to my family to say that 'we will kill [Mustafa],'" he says of himself. "But we cannot afford a guard."

The charge of U.S. indifference--a staple among Iraqi liberals—has merit. But what many Iraqis see as evidence of U.S. callousness amounts, in truth, to bureaucratic ineptitude. Organizations like the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) have provided invaluable support to local NGOs, such as the Iraqi Society for Human Rights Coordination, the Baghdad Women Association, and dozens of other groups. But the U.S. Agency for International Development's signature $43 million program to support civil society has been tied up in bureaucratic knots for a year. Moreover, the funds that the United States does channel to civil society organizations frequently drip out in increments of a few hundred dollars or less, because, as one American involved in the effort puts it, "the Iraqis don't know how to spend the money." The U.S. Embassy employs exactly one staffer, and no high-level officials, to support Iraqi civil society. "I was at CPA handling civil society support for the Baghdad region," recalls A. Heather Coyne, who directs USIP programs here, "and we had virtually nothing to offer the emerging organizations in terms of resources or expertise."

This indifference has not helped liberals' chances in the elections, which the CPA set up as a nationwide vote for candidate slates, rather than as a separate contests in individual districts. This arrangement favors national Shia parties at the expense of lesser-known candidates, such as Al Din and Ghassan Al Atiyah, many of them liberals with no constituency outside their respective provinces. (Imagine, for instance, how the Upper West Side's Ronnie Eldridge or Washington, D.C.'s Carol Schwartz would fare in a national election in the United States.) And, while Teheran has funded the major Shia parties to the tune of $20 million, Washington has refused to play favorites, insisting instead on a strict policy of "evenhandedness." This may seem like evidence of high-mindedness. But the United States boasts a long history of favoring pro-U.S. political organizations abroad. The decision to do otherwise here reflects a broader logic of the U.S. mission: Democracy first; liberalism later.

But even an Iraq blessed with the political culture of Sweden would find it impossible to cultivate liberalism in this blood-soaked landscape. War and liberalism, as even U.S. history attests, do not co-exist easily. To demonstrate the point, an Iraqi friend drops me off one night at the house of Mashal Sarraf, Iraq's deputy defense minister. Rows of bodyguards in black ski masks line the driveway, barely discernible in the dark. An Iraqi in civilian clothes pulls me into an SUV and deposits me in front of Sarraf's front door. Another escorts me into his living room, where Sarraf sits on a plush sofa, a cigarette in one hand, worry beads in the other, a five-foot television screen in front of him. He is a prisoner.

Not coincidentally, he is also one of Iraq's most famous liberal voices. Having left Iraq as a young man for exile in Beirut and London, Sarraf returned after the U.S. invasion with the same hopes that animated so many other liberal exiles. But that was two years ago. From the vantage point of his post in the defense ministry, war has made liberalism impossible. "We have to admit the terrorists have won," he says. "People cannot engage in civil society; the war has stopped progress; liberalism is over for now." Asked what, if anything, can be done to revive the liberal project, Sarraf replies, "We need an emergency government that does nothing but security. When there is stability, then liberalism will begin to emerge, but only when there is stability." A line of visitors parades through the living room, for Sarraf, too, cannot emerge. So I do, leaving him at the door.

After a while, one grows accustomed to leaving liberals at the door. Which raises a basic question: How can there be liberalism in a country where liberals cannot leave their homes? Every week brings a new tally—earning nary a mention in the U.S. press—of election workers and NGO staffers murdered in the streets of Mosul and Baghdad. "I can't mention where I work," says an Iraqi woman active in a human rights organization. "I tell people I work in [a neighborhood in Western Baghdad], because my neighbor could betray me and have me killed. Getting to work is death."

Many continue to brave the odds just the same, having decided that their cause merits the risk. "The Iraqis amaze me by continuing to step up to the plate," Coyne says, "even though the people at the plate are increasingly likely to get picked off." But there simply isn't enough political space for them to operate effectively. The war has sucked the oxygen out of the liberal experiment. Iraqi opinion polls, for instance, which showed majorities favoring a secular state a year ago, show the reverse today—a poll by IRI released last August reported that 70 percent of Iraqis would prefer an Islamic state. Only stability can arrest these trends. As former CPA adviser and democracy expert Larry Diamond has put it, "You can't have a democratic state unless you have a state, and the fundamental, irreducible condition of a state is that it has a monopoly on the means of violence." Needless to say, in Iraq today, no one possesses such a monopoly.

So I set off to accompany the one force that possesses the closest thing to it. When it comes to liberalism in Iraq, there's no getting around a simple truth: NGOs do what they can; Iraqi liberals do what they can; but, in the end, only the U.S. military has the ability to create stability—and, hence, democracy—here. Most Iraqis are uncomfortable with that. Even pro-U.S. Iraqi elites have come to resent pulling over their cars as U.S. convoys rumble by, having .50-caliber machine guns trained at their windshields, and navigating endless U.S. checkpoints and enduring petty humiliations there. As for less privileged Iraqis, it has become a truism of everyday life in Baghdad that they stand a greater chance of being gunned down by nervous U.S. troops, reeling from an ambush or an improvised explosive device, than of being blown up by a suicide bomber. My Iraqi driver, for one, has no problem idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic (though I do). But, when an American patrol speeds by, he nearly swerves off the road.

Going out on Army patrols, then, feels like passing through a looking glass. Crisscrossing western Baghdad with a convoy made up of elements of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, the Iraqis staring back at us seem far away. The sensation doesn't last. The convoy lurches to a halt at a street corner in Mansur. Apart from the soldiers mounting the machine guns atop the Humvees, the troops all dismount—and start handing out pro-government newspapers. Perhaps because the handout is, literally, an exercise in gunpoint democracy, Iraq Now has few takers, and we make our way back to the American base. As we zip past gas station lines and through traffic circles--Iraqi cars in front of us scattering to make way--an Army specialist riding in the front seat says, "Ninety percent of them are glad we're here. They know their freedom depends on us."

The belief runs all the way up the chain of command, along with a faith in Iraqi democracy that even the most optimistic of Iraq's liberals can't match. At Camp Victory, the sprawling Army base on the outskirts of Baghdad that the 1st Infantry Division and various units attached to it call home, I sit down for lunch in the book-lined office of Colonel Mark A. Milley, the 2nd Brigade's commander. "The enemy," Milley tells me, "is akin to nineteenth-century nihilists—they offer no alternative vision of society, they're only trying to destroy." And us? "As is true in any insurgency," Milley continues, "the people who will succeed have to appeal to large segments of the population. We and the government of Iraq offer a policy of hope." He recounts the story of an Iraqi cleric who told him, "What you are doing has God's blessing." At which point one of Milley's officers opens the door. The 2nd Brigade has been mortared, and five of Milley's soldiers have been wounded, one seriously. Over the past month alone, seven have died.

The losses don't seem to have budged members of the brigade from their faith in the U.S. mission. "Iraqis are starting to see that things are getting better," Major Web Wright tells me. "They can see that we're offering them a future." Dusk arrives, and I wander around the base with a young Army journalist. Miles and miles of trailers stretch into the distance, flanked by forests of antennae and swirls of dust, kicked up by armored vehicles going out on patrols and choppers landing and taking off. In the huge mess hall, Indian servers offer ice cream, cheeseburgers, even an Indian buffet. And then I stumble back into Iraq. Searching for a night patrol to hitch a ride with, I wander into the darkened courtyard of a battalion headquarters. There, facing a concrete blast wall, sit a row of what appear at first glance to be soldiers back from a patrol, huddling in blankets. But they are all wearing blindfolds, and an Iraqi man shouts at them in Arabic. The detainees, it turns out, were captured in an auto-body shop--often used as bomb-making factories--and tested positive for explosive residue on their hands.

Finally, at about midnight, I depart Camp Victory with a patrol of armored personnel carriers (APCs) belonging to the 3rd Platoon, 58th Combat Engineer Company. As soon as the APCs start to move, its 20- and 21-year-old passengers begin trading coordinates on their radios, scanning darkened buildings with spotlights, and swiveling their gun turrets toward potential ambush sites. The platoon's interpreter, a Sudanese man who somehow wound up in Iraq a decade ago, shouts to me above the din of the tracks rumbling beneath us, "I want to go back to Africa."

I join the lieutenant standing in the open hatch. "The more educated Iraqis are, the more grateful they are to us," he says. "It's the less educated ones--they're the ones who throw rocks." Ahead of us, the line of APCs makes it way forward, only their headlights visible through the dust and darkness. I wonder whether I should offer my opinion that it is the less educated Iraqis who will decide the country's fate. I wonder whether I should tell him that he may soon be fighting on behalf of a government that includes the very forces his comrades battled in Najaf and Sadr City. I wonder what exactly it is that the United States has asked him to fight for.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate ofColumbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. 

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This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.