So the Iraq war was, despite all that went wrong, a good thing; the "overwhelming majority" of Iraqis are (and presumably feel) better off because of it; and the fault for all that has gone wrong is ultimately with Iraqis themselves: It's a remarkable point of view to encounter in June 2013.
And of course, there's no shortage of strong objections you could raise to it—e.g.:
- It might well be that the war has ultimately given Iraqis a shot at democracy. But it also eliminated the region's most important check on the Islamic Republic of Iran. As Ignatius pointed out, Iraq is now a transit point for materials and pro-Assad fighters going into Syria: "It's a perverse consequence of history that we spent a trillion dollars and countless American lives to give Iran strategic advantage in the region."
- It might well be that the "majority" of Iraqis feel better off thanks to the war. But even if so, that majority would certainly be dominated by Kurds and Shias, and comprise very few Sunis. And one of the major ongoing challenges that post-war Iraq faces is precisely: horrible sectarian violence.
- It might well be, too, that ultimate responsibility for the to-date acute failures in building a democratic Iraq lay with Iraq's post-war leadership. But ultimate responsibility surely still lies with the United States for, at the very least not knowing who will fail to build a successful new state after the U.S. dismantles the old one.
But Salih is inclined to take a long view of history: "On the way here," he said, "on the flight from London to Denver, I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and when I was reading that, politics in the United States at that time was not so civil. Obviously it did not have car bombs, thank God ..."
"That's not a minor point," Goldberg interjected, "the lack of car bombs during the Adams administration."
"It is not a minor point," Salih said. "But I am talking about the nature of politics. [A transition to democracy] is happening. It is tough; it is messy; it is disappointing much of the time, painful. ... But this is forces of history trying to define the future in the region."
Salih's theory of how this democratic transition will overcome Iraq's violent sectarian divisions, car bombings with them, is essentially a theory of religious progress, which he offers by way of analogy with the history of Christianity. "One issue that is complicating very profoundly the transition to democracy—not just in Iraq: in Syria, in Egypt, even in Tunisia and Libya—is the role of religion in public life," he said. "Christianity has had that debate long ago, in the Reformation and so on. Islam is now going through that debate, unfortunately in a violent way, and that is really distorting the process and making it difficult."
When Goldberg changed the question and asked Salih whether he thinks that democracy can be taught in a way that would allow countries that have no experience with it to adopt its forms, Salih answered emphatically that, no, it cannot: "Democracy is a set of institutions, a set of processes; and it's also about economic infrastructure, developing a middle class. ... Democracy is a process; it's going to take time." Neither, he emphasized, does democracy simply mean elections: "Without civil society, without a free press, without strong institutions, ... democracy is unrealized."