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On Point

Bob Kerrey: On Iraq and Democracy


by Austin Bay
June 18, 2004

Colonel Bay is now serving with coalition forces in Iraq. Before he deployed he interviewed 9/11 Comissioner, former SEAL, and former Senator Bob Kerrey about the historical significance of Iraq.

Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey has always struck me as the Democrats' version of John McCain. It isn't merely their Vietnam War connection, though demonstrated courage is surely a factor. When called upon to be partisan, they'll play party hardball, but don't expect national committee talking points. Both men have the maverick's spine to openly speculate and frustrate, but they usually do so with a leader's disciplined goal of constructive critique.

Kerrey is now president of the New School University in New York. He's also a commissioner and major presence on the 9-11 investigating committee.

I spoke with him last month by phone, but the subject wasn't the latest 9-11 soundbite, it was historical vision.

That's a tough topic. But for good leaders -- and I'd add, for responsible critics -- it's a vital exercise, making the creative attempt to "look back from the future at the present." The goal is to slip the myopia of immediate emotions and focus on the long-term significance of current actions and events.

This comment by Kerrey, from December 2003, led to last month's conversation: "I think (Iraq is) going well. It breaks my heart whenever anybody dies, but we liberated 25 million people who were living under a dictator. It puts us on the side of democracy in the Arab world. Twenty years from now, we'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says it wasn't worth the effort. This is not just another democracy. This is a democracy in an Arab world ..."

He stands by it. Here's why:
"If you look beyond the short term violence and instability, you do see significant activities on the part of the Iraqi people that indicate they understand the commitment necessary to govern themselves. It's not clear how they will do it, but it never is. It's not clear in the U.S. at the moment, either. We're going through another election," Kerrey added, with a touch of irony.

But as for Iraq: "There are going to be in the short term terrifying, confusing moments (like) attacks on Iraqi police headquarters. The intent (by the opposition) is to produce destabilization, to cause people to say let's get out of here, they don't like us. ... I don't think the U.S. is going to cut and run. If we stay, then I am very confident that Iraq will build a stable democracy, have their own police ... and (eventually) provide their own military for defense against external threat.

"The problem is you tend to look back and identify mistakes, and as a consequence of feeling terrible about mistakes you say you bungled this so bad, let's get out of here. Any peaceful project I've been involved in ... there's always a moment where there's a setback and you say, "Oh no," and faith's shaken. You can't let that stop you."

Why is Arab democracy such a significant goal?

Kerrey said "The West" underestimated the Arab world after World War One. "With Versailles (the treaty) in 1919, we viewed the Arabs as largely tribal, bedouin, backward. They couldn't govern themselves ... the French, British, provided the stable government that allowed commercial transactions. ... As a consequence of our lack of confidence in them, we've communicated that democracy is a vital, difficult option for everyone but them."

What a mistake, Kerrey argued. Democracy benefits everyone. "There's democracy in India and South Africa. We have to put the spotlight on those places that demonstrate if you're willing to work hard and sustain the effort through the disappointment of failure ... but if you have people willing to sustain the effort, people who believe humanity has a good side, you can make it work. Terrorists in Iraq are saying we reject that, and we want control. That's what's important (to the Islamist terrorists), control through a corrupted interpretation of the Koran or because we (Baathists) want to control because we want to control."

Kerrey said the "big argument" on the planet, and one motivating radical terrorists, is "How do we make modernism work? No doubt communism is completely discredited ... but ... how do you make globalism work for local communities. I don't think we've figured out how to make it work."

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