Optimism

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WaPo’s Richard Cohen, writing off the American effort in Iraq as a defeat, revives the “Arabs are violent, incorrigibly tribal and incapable of democracy” motif:

We understood so little about Iraq. We thought it was just another place where people wanted to be free and vote for the school board. Even today U.S. officials cling to their ethnocentric aspirations.

The Islamic world � the Arab world in particular � is fighting its own way, rejecting an alien culture the way the body rejects a foreign cell.

Get it? Democracy is ethnocentric. Only some races can tolerate it. Not the least consequence of a constitutional failure in Iraq would be the resurgence of such talk in the West. A failure in Iraq — whoever you blame for it — would collapse one bridge built across the “clash of cultures” divide. It would stifle one argument for reaching out to moderate and secular forces in the Islamic/Arab world as the antidote to Islamists. It would disgust that many more American voters with the notion that creative adventures work better than pulling in the fences, sealing the borders, and keeping the old trigger finger limber. You don’t get a second chance to do this right.

By “failure” I mean a breakdown of the entire national system. Not a constitution that talks about religion, or one that allows local autonomies. “Failure” doesn’t mean an Iraq that is capable of having a diplomatic dispute with the United States. We didn’t buy the place to keep as a household pet. Within a generation of the French helping the United States get free, America and France locked horns in a cold war.

“You cannot believe in democracy without being an optimist. Democracy is identical with the idea that people can live in freedom without abusing it.�

Iraq has reached its “Germany moment.� After tyranny, then war, then occupation, the country is about to stand � or fall � on its own, as West Germany did in 1948. It’s easy to forget how much nail-biting accompanied those first baby steps

Monday, Iraq’s National Assembly gave itself another week to finish drafting a new constitution. In some quarters this news has been greeted as a death knell for democracy in Baghdad.

The drafting committee has spent more than four months preparing what is intended to be the foundation of a new, democratic Iraq.

But that’s about how long it took the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787 to hammer out their document � America, too, once had to learn to walk. And America didn’t face an active insurgency and enemy nations circling like sharks. Even then only 39 of the 55 Philadelphia convention delegates thought the thing was worth signing, and it took another four years to get the Bill of Rights.

Make no mistake; the Iraqis are walking a tightrope. Saddam’s brutality kept the nation’s ethnic and religious groups in check. If the new constitution doesn’t give them all a sense of participation, Iraq could become Bosnia on steroids.

The challenges are enormous, but solutions may be found. They must be found.

“You cannot believe in democracy without being an optimist.” Not Madison or Wilson or Roosevelt said that; the author was Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the son of an Austro-Hungarian count and a Japanese woman.

He wrote it in an article published at the end of 1945 in a newspaper printed by German-Americans on the very presses of Goebbels’ old Völlkischer Beobachter, amid the ruins of Munich, where smoke still reeked from caved-in basements and rats waddled in the streets, gorged on God knows what.

He titled it “Der Optimismus Amerikas,� “The Optimism of America.�

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