Why we need to get it right in Iraq

A bipartisan strategy needs to be devised on the best way to fight the long war against terror.

Published May 27, 2007

At this year's graduation celebration at the New School in New York, Iranian lawyer, human-rights activist and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi delivered our commencement address. This brave woman, who has been imprisoned for her criticism of the Iranian government, had many good and wise things to say to our graduates.

But one applause line troubled me. Ebadi said: "Democracy cannot be imposed with military force."

What troubled me about this statement - a common criticism of U.S. involvement in Iraq - is that those who say such things seem to forget the good U.S. arms have done in imposing democracy on Japan and Germany, or Bosnia more recently.

The United States led an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein because Iraq was rightly seen as a threat following Sept. 11, 2001. No matter how incompetent the Bush administration and no matter how poorly they chose their words to describe themselves and their political opponents, Iraq was a larger national security risk after Sept. 11 than it was before. And no matter how much we might want to turn the clock back, we cannot. The war to overthrow Saddam Hussein is over. What remains is a war to overthrow the government of Iraq.

Some critical of this effort from the beginning have consistently based their opposition on their preference for a dictator we can control or contain at a much lower cost. From the start, they said the price tag for creating an environment where democracy could take root in Iraq would be high. Those critics can go to sleep at night knowing they were right.

The critics who bother me most are those who ordinarily would not be on the side of supporting dictatorships, who are arguing today that only military intervention can prevent the genocide of Darfur, or who argued yesterday for military intervention in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda to ease the sectarian violence that was tearing those places apart.

Suppose we had not invaded Iraq and Saddam Hussein had been overthrown by Shiite and Kurdish insurgents. Suppose al-Qaida then undermined their new democracy to the same level of violence we are seeing today. Wouldn't you expect the same people who are urging a unilateral and immediate withdrawal to be urging military intervention to end this carnage? I would.

American liberals need to face these truths: The demand for self-government remains strong in Iraq despite our mistakes and the violent efforts of al-Qaida, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias to disrupt it. Al-Qaida in particular has targeted for abduction and murder those who are essential to a functioning democracy: school teachers, aid workers, private contractors working to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, police officers and anyone who cooperates with the Iraqi government. Much of Iraq's middle class has fled the country in fear.

With these facts on the scales, what does your conscience tell you to do? If the answer is nothing, that it is not our responsibility or that this is all about oil, then no wonder today we Democrats are not trusted with the reins of power. American lawmakers who are watching public opinion tell them to move away from Iraq as quickly as possible should remember this: Concessions will not work with al-Qaida or other foreign fighters who will not rest until they have killed or driven into exile the last remaining Iraqi favoring democracy.

The key question for Congress is whether or not Iraq has become the primary battleground against the same radical Islamists who declared war on the United States in the 1990s and who have carried out a series of terrorist operations including 9/11. The answer is emphatically, "yes."

This does not mean that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. He was not. Nor does it mean that the war to overthrow him was justified - though I believe it was. It only means that a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq would hand Osama bin Laden a substantial psychological victory.

Finally, Jim Webb said something during his campaign for the Senate that should be emblazoned on the desks of all 535 members of Congress: You do not have to occupy a country to fight the terrorists who are inside it. Upon that truth it is possible to build what doesn't exist today in Washington: a bipartisan strategy for terrorism's long-term threat.

The American people will need that consensus regardless of when, and under what circumstances, we withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. We must not allow terrorist sanctuaries to develop any place on Earth. Whether these fighters are finding refuge in Syria, Iran, Pakistan or elsewhere, we cannot afford diplomatic or political excuses to prevent us from using military force to eliminate them.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and member of the 9/11 Commission, is president of The New School.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2007 Dow Jones & Company Inc. All rights reserved.