Iraq has brought the quality of political discourse in America to a sad new low point. Republicans accuse Democrats of being cowards because they want to bring the troops home. Democrats accuse the president of lying because he paints a rosier picture of the situation there than may exist.
The name-calling may not cease until after the midterm elections a few weeks ahead. Perhaps then Americans can engage in a more temperate debate about the larger issue spawned by the US venture into Iraq. It is whether the US has an obligation to promote democracy around the world, and if so, by what means.
In his second term inaugural address, President Bush declared that the moral choice confronting every ruler and nation was between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right." Surely few Americans, of whatever political leaning, could cavil at that. Throughout their history, said Mr. Bush, Americans had proclaimed the imperative of self-government because "no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."
But how should the US promote for others the freedoms Americans themselves enjoy? And what lessons should be learned from Iraq?
One is surely that when force is used as an instrument of liberation it is best launched with significant support from the international community. In the case of Iraq, the US did not have that. Britain was a sturdy ally, committing substantial forces, and there was nominal support from a few others, but the US shouldered much of the burden and is taking most of the casualties.
Another imperative is that there be a realistic program for aid and reconstruction after the fighting has stopped. Clearly, while the US military invasion of Iraq was fast-moving and brilliant, the postwar occupation has had many deficiencies.
The military men who argued that substantially more troops would be needed to protect borders and key installations have been proved right. Furthermore, the progress of civilian, political, and economic programs for the restructuring of Iraq has been too little too long.
In part, the postwar problems have been due to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's apparent decision to sideline the State Department and its expertise and make the Defense Department paramount. The greater use of experts on Iraq and Islam both in government and in academic institutions might have prevented some of the administration's early missteps.
Another flaw in postwar planning was the Pentagon's reliance on longtime Iraqi exiles to provide intelligence about how arriving US troops would be received by the Iraqi populace.
True, there were smiles and flowers in the early days, but resentment grew as Iraqis had to deal with continuing shortages of electricity and other public services. As factional violence increased, so did the inability of the Americans to create peace and stability, and make the speedy departure for which the Pentagon had hoped.
The unexpected course of events in Iraq should not lessen the commitment of the US to the spread of freedom elsewhere in the Islamic world, or to other regions where freedom is lacking.
But Americans must learn to expect that there are sometimes pitfalls along the road to democracy. The course may not always be easy or swift. There may be progress to more "freedom" without necessarily producing the kind of "democracy" that Americans recognize or hope for.
In his inaugural address, Bush said it was US policy to seek and support the growth of democratic movements but "not impose our own style of government on the unwilling." Nor, despite some of the disappointments in Iraq, should Americans conclude that spreading democracy is a hopeless aim.
The state of world freedom is showing "striking improvement in major countries from Ukraine to Indonesia," reports the 2006 annual freedom survey by the respected Freedom House organization. "Several places in the Arab Middle East," it notes, "saw modest but notable increases in political rights and civil liberties – even though none there yet approach the status of a free society."
Could the US, in a desire to promote and hasten freedom, do more with public diplomacy and broadcasting to beleaguered peoples? Should economic development precede political progress? To what extent should the US actively finance reformist groups in countries with questionable regimes? Does one matrix fit all?
As Republicans and Democrats debate – with more grace, hopefully – the lessons learned in Iraq, such questions as these should help shape the campaign that advances the noble cause of freedom.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.