Iraqis will go to the polls tomorrow for the third time this year. Their actions mark both a triumph for the Iraqi people and a warning for Arab autocrats. Not only has the Iraqi march toward democracy proved naysayers wrong, but Iraqis' growing embrace of democracy demonstrates the wisdom of staying the course. Iraqis are changing political culture. Howard Dean and John Murtha may believe that the U.S. military has lost. Brent Scowcroft may think Arab democracy a pipe dream. They are mistaken.
The greatest impediment to progress in the Arab world is not terrorism or Islamism; both are recent phenomena. Rather, it is lack of accountability. Instead of accepting responsibility for lack of progress, many Arab regimes blame outsiders. In 2002, the U.N.'s Arab Development Report found that the Arab region has the lowest value of all regions of the world for "voice and accountability." In his seminal article "Why Arabs Lose Wars," Col. Norvell De Atkine, an observer of Arab military training, found that "taking responsibility . . . rarely occurs." Arab soldiers seldom admit, let alone learn from, mistakes. In recent discussions with U.S. diplomats and military officials, Iraqi insurgents and former regime elements say that order can be restored only with the empowerment of the former officer corps. They speak of the army's glories but, under Saddam Hussein, triumphs were limited to parades and posturing.
Western scholars have long idealized Iraq's--and even the Baath Party's--past. Some suggest that, at least under Saddam's early leadership, Iraq was a paragon of affluence and stability. In "The Future of Iraq," for example, British scholars Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield write that "Regardless of the oppressive (or 'evil') nature of the regime . . . in the economic and social sphere its achievements were truly impressive." They are not alone, but rather project a common myth. The reality is quite different: Saddam's rule was marked by uninterrupted decline. According to Patrick Clawson, the International Monetary Fund's desk officer for Iraq at the time, Iraq's standard of living declined to about one-quarter of its peak from the time Saddam took power. In the same period, Iraq went from being among the least corrupt of Arab states to among the most. It is important to recognize the truth, especially as the resolve of our politicians wavers. There should be no whitewashing of history.
Excuses can be made to absolve Saddam of responsibility. Multiple wars and sanctions contributed to the decline, but the failure to recover was the result of mismanagement and misallocation. The cavernous marble palace, confiscated by coalition forces to serve as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, was built almost entirely under sanctions. Oil for Food money disappeared into foreign accounts. Saddam did not take responsibility for his failings: Iraq's travails were not his fault, but rather the result of internal disloyalty or outside plots. Tens of thousands ended up in mass graves so that the leader could save face. Margins of election victory hovering near 99% completed the illusion. Rather than defend the Iraqi people, Western peace activists amplified the dictator's rhetoric. The Baath Party should be held responsible for its record. And today it is. Saddam sits behind bars. De-Baathification remains popular among many Iraqis, even as they debate the nuance of its implementation.
The coalition's ouster of Saddam may have created a template for change, but it is Iraqis who have pressed forward to hold not only Saddam, but also subsequent politicians, to account. On June 28, 2004, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer appointed Iyad Allawi as interim prime minister. Mr. Allawi, a former Baathist, was a favorite of the U.S., British and Jordanian intelligence services. He projected an image of strong leadership to an Iraqi audience craving security. He promised to jumpstart reconstruction. But he failed. Corruption exploded. Iraqis blamed his empowerment of senior Baathists for the spread of insurgency and decline in security. Furthermore, he treated U.S. diplomats, not Iraqis, as his most important constituency. He campaigned surrounded by American security agents. Iraqis had enough. On Jan. 30, millions braved bombs to bounce him from office. Even with the trappings of incumbency--media coverage and a bully pulpit for his campaign--he barely mustered 14%. As Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians and Syrians watched with envy, Iraqis held a failed incumbent to account.
They will do it again tomorrow. Like Mr. Allawi, current Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has failed. Local humor is telling. A popular Baghdad joke tells of how he walks into his office to find a rooster, dog and donkey. "I'm here to wake you up so you can do your job," the rooster crows. "I'm here to provide security," the dog barks. "Why are you here?" Jaafari asks the donkey. "I don't know. I'm no different from you," the donkey brays.
Under Saddam, and in other Arab autocracies, such jokes were dangerous. But in the new Iraq, the public translates its mood into action. Mr. Jaafari may try to blame his failings on others, but hundreds of newspapers, and a proliferating network of radio stations and TV networks, will not allow him. Ash-Sharqiya has won wide audiences with its political satire. Iraqi editorial cartoonists are merciless. Those surrounding Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani may give a lukewarm endorsement to the United Iraqi Alliance religious slate, but the clerical leadership realizes that they cannot push too hard. Iraqis may respect religion, but they are not willing to forgive militia abuse, even in the name of religion. The Shiite slate may still win a plurality, but its returns will decline. So too will that of the Kurdish list, as disgust with Masud Barzani's conflation of business and politics is escalating.
Even some insurgents have come to realize the power of democracy. I traveled to Jordan last month to meet a senior insurgent leader and unrepentant Baathist. He conceded that "resistance" activities had hurt too many Iraqis and turned many in the hotbed Sunni province of al-Anbar against them. Sunni Arab groups that last year placed their hope for empowerment on U.S. or Arab League intercession recognize that their best hope for empowerment is through the ballot box, not boycotts and bombs.
The process of democratization may be messy--but it is working. Iraqis are frustrated with their situation but, unlike elsewhere in the Arab world, they can now hold their government to account. In Brent Scowcroft's world of realpolitik, Arab regimes are unaccountable to their people. There are no constituents. Hatred festers, and autocrats blame outsiders. Instability and, in the case of the Arab world, a half century of intermittent warfare results. In the face of stagnant government and corruption, Tunisians, Egyptians and Palestinians have turned toward Islamic radicals who seek to restrict freedom and promote terror. But Iraqis have an alternative. Their vote has meaning. Arab regimes expect citizens to serve the ruler. But in Iraq, voters insist that politicians serve the people.
Mr. Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is an American Enterprise Institute scholar.