Rethinking democracy in Iraq
June 13, 2004
Meyrav Wurmser recently asked a question in the National Review Online that has been giving many of us pause: Could it be that the deformities and violence of Arab society makes it uniquely unsuited for democracy? Even as many traditional conservatives are busy attacking neoconservatives for the hubris of their efforts at state-building in Iraq, many neocons, like Wurmser, are themselves questioning their assumption that democracy is the universal solvent, the natural condition of all men in all places.
Wurmser posed her question at a particularly bleak moment. Fierce fighting was raging in Fallujah in the Sunni Triangle, and Muqtada al-Sadr appeared on the verge of igniting the Shia south against America. A few weeks later, things look considerably better. Fallujah is quieter and Muqtada was basically driven from Najaf by senior Shiite clerics, just as Michael Rubin predicted in these pages last month.
There is more good news. An interim Iraqi government has been chosen to take over power on June 30, and the influence of the U.N.’s envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, a former undersecretary of the Arab League and a representative of the Sunni establishment, on its composition appears to have been far less than feared.
Local elections have been taking place all over the country. And contrary to predictions that elections would be dominated by religious parties, secular independents have won in almost every case. Iraqi oil production is at its highest level ever, potable water has doubled since Saddam’s days, and tens of thousands of Iraqi children are no longer dying yearly, as they were when Saddam and the U.N. were busy skimming profits off the Food-for-Oil program. Health care spending is 25 times what it was under Saddam.
Democracy, however, is far from a done deal in Iraq. Would that it were true, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently told the House of Commons, that much of the bad relations between the West and the Arab and Muslim world is due to nothing more that "misunderstanding and propaganda that is aimed at dividing the two of us." That, unfortunately, is rank nonsense. The divisions between the two worlds are real, and they are enormous.
Certainly the neocons are guilty of having oversold the ease and speed with which some form of free society might emerge in Iraq. In part, that oversell may have been tactical. Many Americans, like most citizens of advanced technological societies, have little patience for undertakings involving military casualties and which exact high costs over a lengthy period of time. Reminding Americans that it took five years or more to create constitutional regimes in Germany and Japan after World War II, even though conditions in Germany and Japan were in many respects more auspicious than in Iraq, would hardly have commended the project to them.
At the same time, much of the current breastbeating over the democratization project in Iraq is misplaced. Not because democracy in Iraq is inevitable, but because the attempt to create a free Iraq remains the most serious response to 9/11.
The 9/11 attacks forced upon us recognition that the Islamic world is a vast breeding ground for terrorists consumed by seething fury at the West. Iran’s recent boast that it has signed up 10,000 of its citizens to volunteer as suicide bombers in Iraq and against other Western targets suggests the magnitude of the problem.
The task of draining the swamps in which terrorists breed is a huge one. The only approach that offers any chance of success is to somehow end what Tahari calls the "deficit of hope" that characterizes all Arab societies, and which is in turn a result a result of numerous other deficits – deficits of information, freedom, and economic development.
A grateful Iraq freed from the tentacles of a brutal, sadistic killer, and able to call upon a well-educated middle class and millions of émigrés with experience of Western freedom, offered the best possible opportunity for showing that the deficits can be reduced and hope restored. Personal liberty and economic freedom were to be the means.
Perhaps the chances of succeeding were never that great, but there was no alternative to trying. Charles Krauthammer put the matter with his customary acuity in a February lecture at the American Enterprise Institute: "The undertaking [of bringing democracy to Iraq], as in Germany and Japan, is enormous, ambitious, arrogant, and may not succeed. But we cannot afford not to try. There is not a single, remotely plausible, alternative strategy for attacking the monster behind 9/11."
The alternative favored by the State Department and of late John Kerry is to aim for nothing more than a stable Iraq, without worrying overly much about democracy. At best, look for a strongman with some proclivities for Western-style personal liberty and economic freedom. (That approach, incidentally, mirrors the Israeli approach under Oslo, which envisioned Arafat as a Palestinian strongman, who would act as Israel could not to quell Palestinian terrorism and provide stability.)
The failures of precisely this approach are written all over the map of the Middle East. Allegedly pro-Western strongmen have done nothing to produce either political or economic liberty. It is more than 80 years since Ataturk brought Turkey into the modern world, and the Middle East has produced no successors in that entire period. It is telling that the two Middle Eastern leaders most closely identified with the United States – Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prince Abudallah of Saudi Arabia – are boycotting the joint summit of G8 nations and Muslim countries President Bush is hosting at the end of the month to advance his democracy initiative for the Middle East.
President Bush convincingly refuted the approach favored by the State Department last November in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy when he noted that "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the price of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."
It can be plausibly argued that the major mistake of American post-war policy in Iraq has not been too much emphasis on democracy but too little. Talk of democracy does not resonate with traditional Middle East hands at the State Department, and their ambivalence has been reflected in reluctance to allow any decision-making power to devolve to Iraqis over the last year. After successfully supervising the election of administrative councils in all of Iraq’s major cities and many other towns, for instance, the Coalition Provisional Authority refused to fund the councils. That refusal deprived Iraqis of the sense of democracy working at the local level.
A similar distrust of how Iraqis might exercise power led CPA head Paul Bremer to attempt to keep all effective power in his hands. He retained a veto power over any decisions of the Iraqi Governing Council, and did not even allow members of the Council the symbolic power of giving the weekly radio addresses to the nation. Not surprisingly, the Governing Council came to be perceived as an American tool, not as the first step toward full-fledged Iraqi self-rule.
There were, of course, good reasons for the United States to remain an active participant in the process of Iraq’s transformation to self-rule. Most notably, the need to ensure that national elections not follow an unhappy pattern of one-man one-vote one-time, and that the constitution guarantee the rights of minorities and the major ethnic groups, like the Kurds in the North. But many of Bremer’s recent actions reflect other concerns entirely and deep skepticism about Iraq’s potential for democracy.
The reluctance to offer Iraqis more of a say over their future or even to listen to their concerns with sufficient attentiveness increased hostility to the American presence in Iraq. Michael Rubin reports that much of this year’s crops were lost because the CPA failed to heed the Iraqi Agricultural Minister’s plea for fertilizer.
Showing too little faith in such organs of Iraqi self-rule as existed, at both the local and national level, raised questions in many minds of America’s commitment to democracy. So did Bremer’s recent re-Baathification of the military and educational system. The net effect of the unwillingness to transfer authority to Iraqis, Richard Perle has argued, was to allow the liberation to become an occupation, and thereby provide ammunition to all those forces in the Arab world whose greatest fear is that Iraq might be transformed into a successful democracy.
The jury is still out on the hopes of those who envisioned Iraq as a model that would shine the way for the rest of the Arab world. But if that effort ultimately fails it should not be for lack of trying.
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