Can we teach Iraq to live (and love) democracy?

By - May 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Paul McLeary

Democracy, being the big, wonderful, scary beast of a political system that it is, can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. For all the lip service paid to its’ being beholden to the will of the people, a democratic system can also have wildly unexpected consequences – Hitler was a democratically elected leader, after all. Likewise, now that Iraq has been liberated and we’re gearing up to install democratic institutions in that repressed country, things may not be as rosy as some pundits make it seem.

What if they elect someone we don’t like?

Try this on for size: What do you think would happen if the first free elections in Iraq produced a victory for a nationalist or anti-western Islamic party like the one that currently rules Iran? Would we let the people choose a regime antagonistic to a western presence in the region? It’s a tough question, and one I hope the Bush administration has war-gamed, though staying true to form, they haven’t addressed the issue in public as of yet. The fact of the matter is that if Osama bin Laden were on the ballot in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan or any number of middle eastern countries, he’d likely win in a landslide.

Signs of fierce Islamic nationalism have already begun to show up. On Friday, April 18th, only days after Baghdad fell, tens of thousands of residents took to the streets of the capital city to demand coalition withdrawal from the country and the establishment of an Islamic state. The demonstrators carried signs reading “No Bush, No Saddam, Yes to Islam,” and “No to America, No to Secular State, Yes to Islamic State.” Led by a group calling itself the Iraqi National United Front, the protesters represented a facet of Iraqi life –Islamic fundamentalism – that hasn’t been discussed much in the American media. Although full of unrealistic bluster (one man said if the Americans weren’t out in a few months, Iraqis would “kill them with our knives”), history has shown that there’s nothing more dangerous than a cornered dog.

A democratic Iraq: the ultimate “square one”

While democratic institutions may seem easy enough to create and maintain from our extremely fortunate perspective, certain preconditions normally need to be met before a real democracy can take hold – preconditions which are, at present, not only completely absent from Iraqi society, but Middle Eastern society in general.

In the administration’s favorite examples of successful democratic nation-building, post-war Japan and Germany, conditions were far different than in Iraq. Both countries had a large, educated and entrepreneurial middle class, high literacy rates, an existing industrial base, familiarity with western political traditions and political history, remnants of a free press and a largely secular society familiar with the rapid political and economic changes of the 20th century.

In contrast, Iraq has virtually no educated middle class from which to draw upon to begin rebuilding their society; indeed, the literacy rate in Iraq currently stands at just over 40 percent. Unemployment is high, and other than the oil industry, they lack the most basic forms industrial infrastructure. They have no real experience with, or knowledge of, any form of government other than authoritarian regimes or governments based on Islamic Sharia law and have no experience with free elections, a free press or an open economy.

If only democratic institutions came boxed up like an erector set, with easy-to-follow directions, then the Bush administration’s plans for an Iraqi democracy might look a little more realistic. As it stands, we’re facing an uphill battle if we really plan to follow through with transforming a tribal and clan-based society, rife with religious and social tension, into a free and open society. That is not to say it can’t be done, but the administration has to accept the fact that it will neither be a quick nor easy fix.

Forget your troubles, come on, get democracy!

While Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has compared the political situation in the Middle East to that of East Asia – which has had notable success in transforming itself into a market-based democratic region in the post-war years – the comparison rings hollow when looking at the reality of the Arab street.

Again, countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan had a functioning civil service apparatus in place and some experience with a free press prior to democratization, helping to ease the transition, while there is a distinct lack of such help in Iraq.

Are all these preconditions necessary for democracy to get a foothold? Of course not, but they do go a long way in fostering the idea of unfettered participation in the decision making process that is at the heart of any participatory form of government. Things like basic literacy, which Iraq so obviously lacks, also go a long way in informing the populace as to the choices it faces. While we have no idea how successful the Kurds, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims will be in attempting to bridge their cultural and religious differences (assuming they’ll try at all) we’ve now committed ourselves to the task of trying to build a secularized, multicultural society in a country torn apart by violence, mistrust and cultural chauvinism.

It’s a great and idealistic project, and one that rivals the magnitude of what we had to shoulder just after the Second World War – the crucial difference being in the amount of time and energy the Bush administration wants to invest. The administration has already left Afghanistan in the dust, allotting no money to the country’s rebuilding process in the upcoming year’s budget, leaving president Karzai essentially a sitting target while Taliban forces regroup near the Pakistani border. One can only hope that Bush & Co. will take more of an active role in the rebuilding of Iraq, although with looming budget crises at home and a weakening job market, the administration might finally be forced to look inward, thereby possibly forfeiting the gains they have made elsewhere.

Democracy is a messy business; anyone who would care to revisit the palace coup that took place in Florida during the 2000 presidential elections can attest to that. If we, the oldest currently functioning democracy on earth, can’t always get it right, how is it going to play out in the Middle East, where we are setting up democratic institutions under the barrel of a gun? We’ve won the war, now we must make sure that we win the peace.

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