Jalal Talabani doesn't look much like Che Guevara. With his ample girth, white moustache and bemused smile, he more resembles a favorite uncle who can be counted on to buy ice cream and dispense sound advice.
But don't be misled: Talabani is a revolutionary. As a teenager in 1946, he founded an illegal student's organization; he joined his first revolt against an Iraqi regime in 1961.
Today, at 72, he serves as president of what he calls “the world's youngest democracy.” No less remarkable: Talabani is Kurdish, a member of a severely persecuted Iraqi minority. To grasp how ground-breaking it is for a Kurd to be Iraq's president, try imagining a woman governing Saudi Arabia or a Coptic Christian as Egypt's head of state.
Iraqis are, right now, the freest people in the Muslim Middle East. They also are under daily attack from insurrectionists representing the interests of the former ruling elite, and terrorists representing the interests of Osama bin Laden. Nothing threatens autocrats and theocrats more than democrats.
Talabani and his colleagues are embarked on a historic mission: They are attempting to build the foundations of a “democratic, pluralist, federated” Iraq. There is no guarantee they will succeed. Many astute observers predict they will fail.
Speaking in Washington last week – to President Bush at the White House and to a somewhat larger audience at the invitation of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy -- Talabani recalled Iraq's history of “violence, brutality and instability.”
In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, he said, “infants were surrounded as much by fear as by their mothers' arms. …The mass graves contain many remains of children who paid the ultimate price for the imaginary crimes of their parents.”
He added: “In the mind of every Iraqi, Saddam tried to install a torturer. Saddam wanted Iraqis to fear even thinking freely, to not dare forming words to express their desire for freedom.”
Talabani called this regime by its correct name: fascist. “Baathist Iraq,” he said, “was the longest lived fascist state in history.” And today, because of the “continued virulence of Baathist fascism, we must defend our democracy while we build it; we must fight even as we vote.”
On Jan. 30, 2005, eight million Iraqis proved that they could do both at once. They risked their lives to go to the polls where they decisively rejected “the minority supremacists, the racists who believe that they have the right to rule.”
Talabani added sardonically: “Unusually for an election in the Middle East, the result in Iraq was not known in advance.”
Regarding ongoing efforts to give Iraq a constitution that would guarantee fundamental human rights, Talabani also doesn't know the outcome. Negotiations and compromises have produced a document that, he says, is “not perfect.” No one, he said, is “wildly enthusiastic about it.”
But that is “the good news,” he added, because it demonstrates that the negotiations were real and the compromises serious. “A document that the few cannot hold up as a banner of victory,” he said, “is a success for the many.”
Talabani is effusive in his gratitude for the sacrifices Americans have made in Iraq. The young American men and women on the front lines in places like Fallujah and Tall Afar, he says, are “fighting fascism with the same dignity and courage as the Great Generation of Americans who fought in World War II.”
He understands that Americans want to go home. He wants them to go home. But he hopes they will not leave until Iraqis have the means to defend themselves from “the home-grown fascists and traveling terrorists who afflict the Middle East.”
To accomplish less, he argues, would be a serious mistake. “We, and you, cannot afford to cede Iraq to the evil forces of terrorism and religious fanaticism,” Talabani said. “We are the heart of the Middle East. Win in Iraq, and the region will change for the better …Lose in Iraq, and then all of the gains that democrats and dissidents have made across a vast swathe of the Islamic world, not just the Middle East, will be lost.”
For decades, America's foreign policy establishment ignored anti-American dictators, groups and movements unless they had clear ties to Moscow. As a consequence we were taken by surprise four years ago this month. Inattention and inaction also allowed malignant regimes in Iran, North Korea and other corners of the world to develop into critical threats.
Now, finally, the U.S. is on a new policy path. Many people are furious about the change. But Talabani believes the current approach deserves encouragement. “No longer is the United States seen to be on the side of the oppressive few,” he said. “No longer is the United States seen to buy an illusory stability with the suffering of millions of Middle Easterners.”
The Iraqi president grasps what many Europeans and Americans do not: that in this century, as much in the last, it is the duty of revolutionaries to fight fascists and other enemies of freedom. “Democracy,” Talabani explained, “needs to be defended.”