When I heard American pundits expressing "surprise, surprise" that Iraqis were not responding to the U.S. invasion of their country by rising up against the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, or welcoming the foreign troops as "liberators," I was reminded of a scene from a television police drama I watched recently:

A woman is beaten up by her husband and the concerned neighbors ask the police to intervene. The cops come to the rescue of the abused wife. They arrest the violent husband, and prepare to take him to prison. To the cops' surprise the angry wife attacks them, demands that they release her husband, and refuses to file a complaint against him. The cops fume at the ungrateful wife, complaining, "She just doesn't want to be saved."

The abused spouse, it seems, is willing to place the highest value on securing the foundations of her marriage and she sees herself as protecting her family from the police "outsiders." Similarly, many Iraqis may despise Saddam Hussein and his brutal ruling Baath party, but their sense of collective identity is violated when foreigners try to "liberate" them.

There is no doubt that the terror of the Iraqi regime can explain in part why the Shiites in Basra and other parts of southern Iraq are not rebelling against Saddam. And the Iraqi military forces are fighting more fiercely than expected because their officers are pointing a gun at their head.

Threats and terror were also the tools used by Stalin and the Soviet regime to get their soldiers to fight against the invading German army in World War II. But no one would deny that the Russian soldiers, many of whom loathed the Communist rulers, fought bravely in Stalingrad and elsewhere, motivated primarily by their willingness to defend the beloved Mother Russia against the hated German aggressors.

Yet many of the American policy-makers and intellectuals who have been the driving force behind the decision to invade Iraq seemed to have been operating under the wishful thinking that most Iraqis would treat them as agents of freedom and democracy. Hence the expectations for the swift "liberation" of southern Iraq and the hope that the regime in Baghdad would collapse under internal pressure from the Iraqis themselves. Instead, the continuing resistance by soldiers and civilians and the attacks by guerrillas and suicide bombers raise concerns of a lengthy occupation.

Sure, we'll all be delighted if Iraq, or for that matter, Tajikistan, Angola, and yes, China, would be transformed into American-style democracies. We certainly could encourage that process by helping those and other countries integrate into the global economy and trade with the United States and other countries-a process that often brings about the rise of a liberal and pro-democracy professional middle class. Supporting the expansion of "civil societies" in those countries is also an important goal. But this is best advanced by private groups and individuals and not the U.S. government.

Instead of attempting to export democracy through the use of military force, the Bush administration should focus only on those areas where American national interests may be at stake: removing Saddam Hussein from power and disarming Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq should not be conditioned upon the introduction of democracy in Iraq, but on the willingness of an Iraqi government, or governments, not to adopt policies that harm core U.S. interests, such as providing aid to anti-American terrorist groups.

The rest should be left to the Iraqi people to decide on their own. They can liberate themselves. If that's what they want.


Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policty studies at the Cato Institute, and the author of "Quagmire: America in the Middle East."