Democracy in Iraq

“The nation of Iraq — with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people — is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.” — President George Bush, February 26, 2003.

Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis has noted that democracies are difficult to create, but once created they are difficult to destroy. Now that the Coalition has liberated the Iraqi people from the grips of Saddam Hussein’s vicious police state apparatus, it remains to be seen whether it is possible to raise a stable democracy from the ashes of three decades of brutality. If Iraq is allowed to slip back to authoritarian rule, the US will not have completely filled the obligations assumed in taking control. However difficult this task might be, a democratic Iraq is likely to offer more stability in the long run. Any authoritarian rule will likely not truly respect the different minority populations, the Sunnis, the Shiites, or the Kurds that comprise Iraq. If a pluralistic democratic federation can be formed, it will stabilize the region, provide the opportunity for rapid economic development, and serve as a model for Islamic democracy.

Not all the French are like the current President Jacques Chirac who apparently believes that governance is merely the art of cynical exploitation for political and economic power. In the early nineteenth century, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States, at that time a rare democracy. He came with an intellectual desire to understand and document for his countrymen the underpinnings of such a political system. How had the United States managed to construct a democratic and free society?

The result of de Tocqueville’s explorations was the seminal book Democracy in America. In it, he attributed America’s democratic success to three factors: the availability of land and opportunity, the structure of laws, and the manners of the people. He ranked these three factors arguing, “The laws contribute more to the maintenance of the democratic republic in the United States than the physical circumstances of the country, and the manners more than the laws.”

Physical circumstances, in present terminology, are the economic opportunities that allow people to divert their energies to economic pursuits rather than political exploitation. However, such economic opportunities to De Tocqueville were not sufficient to explain American democratic success. De Tocqueville noted that lands colonized by the Spanish in Central and South America were blessed with natural resources as great as those of the United States, but none of these lands had nurtured democracies.

Similarly, appropriate laws and political structures may be necessary for democracies, but they are not sufficient. De Tocqueville pointed out that in 1824, Mexico had adopted a federal constitution consciously modeled after the United States Constitution. It provided for an executive, an independent judiciary, a bi-cameral legislature and a federation of states. However, in a few years the experiment collapsed. Clearly, the willingness of the people to respect democratically agreed upon laws, the readiness to acknowledge the rights of others, and the maturity to sublimate aggression into economic activity are keys to stable democratic societies.

Given such necessities, the challenge of nurturing a democratic Iraq appears daunting. It is difficult to be sanguine about current prospects. Iraq has not enjoyed democratic political culture. A brief experiment with a national parliament in the 1930s did not take root. Moreover, various factions and groups that occupy the diverse country will have to learn to respect each other. Can such tolerance be learned? The recent experience of Algeria is not heartening. In 1990, radical Islamists were elected with the goal of imposing an Islamic state. The military intervened and the country is now in political turmoil.

Nonetheless, perhaps de Tocqueville was too pessimistic in assuming that only a very narrow set of circumstances make democratic republics possible. Despite the experiences of Mexico, Algeria, and others, constructing a large-scale democracy with a number of factions could add to stability. Following the political model of James Madison, we can hope that different factions, as they compete for democratic political power, may prevent any single group, (e.g., the Shiites, the Sunnis, or the Kurds) from acquiring tyrannical control. Also on the positive side of the ledger, Iraq has a mercantile middle class and a relatively educated populace. The openness and transparency of a commercial society mitigate against authoritarianism.

In the two centuries since de Tocqueville, we have learned that given economic prosperity and models like the United States, people gravitate to and prosper in liberal democracies. As each new democracy emerges, we find different modalities for different cultures and people with different histories to embrace democratic institutions. The glue of commercial interest has often proved to be an adhesive keeping countries from flying apart. In addition, if democratic structures can be maintained, the culture and manners necessary for such a society are nurtured. The longer democracies exist, the more stable they become.

History is on the side of democracy. In 1790, there were only 3 democracies and even by 1900 there were only a dozen or so countries ruled by the assent of the governed. However, by the end of the last century the number of such countries exploded to over sixty led by the newly emerging democracies of South America. For years, political scientists had believed that the enormous wealth disparities in Latin America would condemn these countries to suffering under authoritarian regimes. While Latin America still struggles, most Latin American countries at least aspire to democracy.

Counting the number of democratic countries is a little misleading. With the break up of colonial empires, there is now a larger number of countries. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the century only 20 percent of the world lived in democracies, while by 2000 the fraction had grown to 60 percent. Save for perhaps Turkey, democratic institutions have had a difficult time establishing themselves in Islamic countries. If ways can be found to nurture such development in Iraq, it will serve as a model for the gradual political liberation of the rest of the Islamic world.

In one important respect, it may be difficult for the United States to provide an example for democracy in Islamic countries. Although democracy blossomed in the United States in a fecund ground fertilized Judeo-Christian values, there is no established religion in the United States. Ironically for Islamic countries, Israel may provide the most appropriate model on how to integrate democratic values, including respect for religious liberty, while having special state recognition of a particular religious faith.

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