Iraqi Decision

When the English settlers in America broke loose from Great Britain and founded a nation at the end of the eighteenth century, the prospects for a republican form of government, a government that derives its authority from the assent of the governed, were not clear. Could such a nation survive and prosper? Indeed, over eighty years later the United States fought the Civil War testing whether, in the words of Abraham Lincoln “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Fortunately, that question was answered in the affirmative, but not before hundreds of thousands of Americans died.

The rapid spread of democracy in the latter half of the twentieth century makes it easy to forget that democracies do not always successfully take root. Regular elections are a necessary, but not sufficient condition for democracies. Democracies also rely on the rule of law and transparency in public commerce. Democracies depend on a mature political culture. People must be willing to respect the political process and the liberty of others. People in successful democracies recognize that sometimes political decisions do not go your way. Political losses are not a reason to take up arms.

In his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria argues that wealth is a key component to successful liberal democracies. He cites the scholarly work of Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi who found that per capita income is highly correlated to the longevity of democracies. In countries with a per capita income of $1500 (in current dollars) or less, a democratic government lasts only eight years. Longevity increases with per capita income. The values between $3000 and $6000 appear to define a transitional range, where the results could go either way. Frankly, for democracies to survive a majority, or at least a strong plurality, must have an economic stake in the survival of democracy. The advantages of maintaining democracy must out weigh the disadvantages of loosing transient political arguments so that citizens internalize the self-imposed disciplines of democracy.

With the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra and the attendant unrest leading to even more deaths, Iraqis appear to be reaching a critical political point. Will the various groups, the Shiites, Sunnies and the Kurds realize that a small minority is deliberately trying to sow violence? Will they allow their tribal and religious sensitivities to overwhelm their judgment and reward those who would destroy a mosque for political advantage? The question reduces to whether enough Iraqis have a sufficient stake in a democratic and free Iraq to isolate and remove extremists.

Iraqis are rightly proud that their land was the “Cradle of Civilization.” But those glories are millennia old. Before the Iraqi people is a real and present choice whether to be the cradle of democracy in the Middle East or to descend into internecine violence. Ultimately, it will be an Iraqi decision, one that cannot be made on their behalf.

Perhaps we should cling to the optimistic hope that this bombing could split Arab Sunnis from those foreign insurgents with whom they have been allied. After all, if the country descends into chaos, Arab Sunnis are dramatically outnumbered. If Iraq splits into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regions, the Kurdish and Shiite regions will be oil-rich and the Arab Sunni region will be oil-poor. In a very real sense, Sunnis have the most to loose if Sunni extremists manage to divide the nation into separate countries or provoke Shiites and Kurds into a militant response.

Of note here is the fact that the CIA World Factbook lists the current per capita income of Iraq as $3400. This places Iraq on the dangerous end of countries that may or may not maintain long-term democratic institutions.

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