• TOPICS : Lessons America should learn from Iraq

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.

The name-calling may not cease until after the mid-term 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 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 Bush, Americans had proclaimed the imperative of self-government as “no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.”

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. 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. But Americans must learn to expect that there are sometimes pitfalls along the road to democracy. There may be progress to more “freedom” without necessarily producing the kind of “democracy” that Americans recognise. In his inaugural address, Bush said it was US policy to support the growth of democratic movements but “not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.” Nor, despite 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 organisation. “Several places in the Mideast,” 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 of Iraq, such questions as these should help shape the campaign that advances the noble cause of freedom. — The Christian Science Monitor