If nothing else comes out of the Iraq war, it should banish the concept of "nation-building" from our language and our minds. "The track record of nation-building and Wilsonian grandiosity ought to give anyone pause," as was said in this column before the Iraq war began.
We can now add Iraq to the list of disasters.
The very existence of Iraq is a result of Woodrow Wilson's grandiose ideas about "the right of self-determination of peoples," which led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the allied powers after World War I. Some of the most bitter and intractable conflicts of our time have arisen in nations carved out of the Ottoman Empire, whether in the Balkans or the Middle East.
You cannot turn a territory and its population into a functioning nation with the stroke of a pen or the drawing of lines on a map. Real nations evolve over time out of the mutual accommodations of peoples, not by imposing the bright ideas of theorists.
No small part of African nations' problems comes from the fact that most became nations only in the sense that conquerors carved up African territories among themselves to suit their convenience. There was no nation of Nigeria until the British drew some lines on a map and gave it that name. There is no reason to think that such a nation would have evolved on its own, given the mutually antagonistic peoples living there.
Iraq is an object lesson in another sense. You seldom hear about the area of the country controlled by Kurds because that has been the most peaceful and orderly part of Iraq, and the media are drawn to death and destruction.
In his insightful new book, Mugged by Reality, author John Agresto says: "I do not believe one American, soldier or civilian, has been killed or even hurt in Kurdish Iraq since the war began - or maybe ever."
The Kurds are a people. They are not just some folks thrown together by others who drew lines on a map. They had their own leaders before there were any national elections in Iraq.
As Mr. Agresto points out, democracy is a means, not an end in itself.
Natan Sharansky's book The Case for Democracy argues persuasively for the international, as well as internal, benefits of democracy, seeing it as the kind of government that reduces the dangers of war. President Bush became an enthusiast for the idea and spent hours talking with Mr. Sharansky in the White House. Perhaps he should have spent a little time talking with Amy Chua, whose book World on Fire points out that democracy - in certain kinds of societies - is a recipe for disaster, despite how valuable it has been in Western nations.
Democracy means voting. It does not mean freedom. When we lump the two ideas together, we confuse ourselves and others.
Britain was a free country long before it became democratic. In Germany, Hitler was elected democratically. In much of Africa, democracy in practice has meant, "One man, one vote - one time," as elected leaders put an end to elections and freedom.
It would be wonderful to have free and democratic nations throughout the world, and that would very likely reduce military conflicts, as Mr. Sharansky and others say. But we do not ensure freedom by holding elections.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Thomas F. Schaller's column will return next week.