An unpleasant scenario: In about two years, Muqtada al-Sadr, the man known in the American press as the "anti-American firebrand cleric," will return to Iraq from religious training in Iran.
He's expected by then to be an ayatollah, an impressive religious title in a very religious nation.
Al-Sadr has made political moves before, and ultimately failed. But as an ayatollah, he'd be in a very powerful position. Even now, at a low point in his influence, a single statement from him can bring more than a million wildly devoted supporters to the streets.
So, what happens if, as many expect, he makes a move to rule, democratically, this nation?
In the end, this is among the dangerous tipping points in encouraging democracy. When the votes are counted, do you have to accept the winner?
For democracy to work, Americans must adopt a difficult foreign policy stance. Like it or not, Iraq is going to go through another rocky decade. It may turn to leaders the United States would rather it did not. America will have to stay engaged and try to encourage Iraqis to embrace a pro-Western position. That will mean a carrot – economic incentives and the help the United States provides to Iraq.
But, except in extreme circumstances, the United States should avoid the stick – reducing aid and support. America has to remain steadfast. That’s the price of nation building.
America has done this before, in Africa, South America, Central Asia. Our allies are not all choir boys. Sometimes we make bad choices (befriending the Taliban vs. Russia didn’t work out too well).
Iraq will be a very delicate democracy for years to come.
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