From the beginning of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, a simple but gnawing question has lurked in the background: Was Iraq the way Iraq was (a dictatorship) because Saddam was the way Saddam was, or was Saddam the way Saddam was because Iraq was the way Iraq was — a collection of warring sects incapable of self-rule and only governable with an iron fist?
Some seven years after the United States toppled Saddam's government, a few weeks before Iraq's second democratic national election, and in advance of the pullout of American forces, this question still has not been answered.
In many ways, Iraq is a test case for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's dictum that "the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
Ironically, though, it was the neo-conservative Bush team that argued that culture didn't matter in Iraq, and that the prospect of democracy and self-rule would automatically bring Iraqis together to bury the past, while many liberals and realists contended that Iraq was an irredeemable tribal hornet's nest and we should not be sticking our hand in there.
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But stick we did, and in so doing we gave Iraqis a chance to do something no other Arab people have ever had a chance to do: freely write their own social contract on how they would like to rule themselves and live together.
With elections set for March 7, with America slated to shrink to 50,000 troops by September — and down to zero by the end of 2011 — Iraqis will have to decide how they want to exploit this opportunity.
I met last week with Gen. Ray Odierno, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, who along with Vice President Joe Biden has done more to coach, coax, cajole and occasionally shove Iraqis away from the abyss than anyone else. He was hopeful because he has seen Iraqis go to the brink so many times and then pull back, but worried because sectarian violence is steadily creeping back ahead of the elections.
It is critical, said Odierno, that "Iraqis feel that the elections are credible and legitimate" and that the democratic process is working.
How might this play out? The ideal but least likely scenario is that we see the emergence of an Iraqi Shiite Nelson Mandela. The Shiites, long suppressed by Iraq's Baathist-led Sunni minority, are now Iraq's ruling majority. Could Iraq produce a Shiite politician, who, like Mandela, would be a national healer — someone who would use his power to lead a real reconciliation instead of just a Shiite dominion? So far, no sign of it.
Even without a Mandela, Iraq could still hold together, and thrive, if its rival Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities both recognize the new balance of power and the new limits of power. No community can assert its will by force and, therefore, sectarian disputes have to be resolved politically.
The two scenarios you don't want to see are: 1) Iraq's tribal culture triumphing over politics and the country becoming a big Somalia with oil; or 2) as America fades away, Iraq's Shiite government aligning itself more with Iran, and Iran becoming the kingmaker in Iraq.
Why should we care when we're leaving? Quite simply, so much of the turmoil in the region was stoked over the years by Saddam's Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, both financed by billions in oil revenues. If, over time, a decent democratizing regime could emerge in Iraq and a similar one in Iran, the whole Middle East would be different.
The odds, though, remain very long. In the end, it will come back to politics vs. culture.
Personally, I'm believer in the argument Lawrence Harrison makes in his book "The Central Liberal Truth" — culture matters but cultures can change. But such change takes time, leadership and often pain.
Which is why, I suspect, Iraqis will surprise us — for good and for ill — a lot more before they finally answer the question: Who are we and how do we want to live together?
THE NEW YORK TIMES