President Bush claims that holding elections on January 30 will bring Iraq a step closer to freedom, an outcome allegedly vital to America’s security. But the Iraqi election will bring neither freedom to Iraq nor security to America.

Consider the beliefs of the Iraqis who will be voting for “freedom” in the upcoming election. Like so many peoples in the Middle East, Iraqis regard themselves as defined by their membership in some larger group, not by their own ideas and goals. Most Iraqis owe their loyalties — and derive their honor from belonging — to their familial clan, tribe or religious sect, to which the individual is subservient. This deep-seated tribalism is reflected in the parties running in the elections: there is a spectrum ranging from advocates of secular collectivist ideologies (communists and Ba’athists) to those defined by bloodlines (such as Kurds and Turkmens) to members of various religious sects.

What will be the result of an election featuring such voters and candidates? Iraqis will merely bring to power some assortment of collectivists and Islamists. Whatever constitution those leaders eventually frame will reflect their desire to arrogate power to their particular group and to settle old scores, such as the longstanding enmity between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis. It may well permit barbaric treatment of individuals, commonly accepted throughout the Islamic world, such as “honor-killings” of women believed to have had sex before marriage, or the banning of “un-Islamic” speech. And in the long term, the new nation may become an active sponsor of Islamic terrorism.

Perhaps the most alarming outcome for U.S. security would be a popularly elected theocracy aligned with or highly sympathetic to Iran’s totalitarian regime. Iran is reported to have smuggled nearly one million people into Iraq to vote and has donated millions of dollars to sway the election in favor of a Shi’ite-led government. Already, Iranian intelligence officials are said to roam the hallways of Iraqi party offices, on whose walls hang pictures of Iran’s supreme leader.

That a theocracy may rise to power in Iraq appears to be totally compatible with the President’s conception of “freedom.” As he told Fox News in October, if Iraq votes in a fundamentalist government, he would “be disappointed. But democracy is democracy. . . . If that’s what the people choose, that’s what the people choose.”

This certainly is democracy — in its literal sense of unlimited majority rule. But it is not freedom.

Political freedom does not mean the expression of a collective will, nor the granting of power to one pressure group to exploit others. It means the protection of an individual from the initiation of physical force by others. Freedom rests on the idea of individualism: the principle that every man is an independent, sovereign being, that he is not an interchangeable fragment of the tribe; that his life, liberty, and possessions are his by right, not by the permission of any group. Democracy (i.e., majority rule) rests on the primacy of the group; if your gang is strong enough, you can get away with whatever you want, sacrificing the life and wealth of whoever stands in your way. This is why America’s Founders rejected democracy and created a republican form of government, limited by the inalienable rights of the smallest “minority”: the individual. Our system does have elections, of course, but they are only legitimate within a constitutional framework that prohibits the majority from voting away the rights of anyone.

Can freedom be achieved in Iraq? In the near future, no — which is one of many reasons why it is suicidal for Bush to treat Iraqi freedom as the centerpiece of American self-defense. American security does not require that the terrorism-sponsoring nations of the Middle East be free, only that they be non-threatening — a goal that can be achieved by making it clear to the leaders of these nations that any continued sponsorship of terrorism will mean their immediate destruction.

In the long run, if Iraqis or other peoples of the Middle East are to become free — a task that is their responsibility, not America’s — they must first recognize that their current ideas and practices are incompatible with freedom. They must recognize that they need to adopt a philosophy of individualism. A good first step toward teaching this lesson would be not granting them the pretense of elections.