Wednesday, March 5, 2003

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DEMOCRATIZATION AND IRAQ: Can democracy flourish in Iraq? The answer depends on which expert you ask.

Historians are skeptics. They do not like analogies to the U.S. occupation of Japan, in part because they don't like historical comparisons, period.

Regional historians believe that the ethnic cleavages and long history of authoritarianism within the country makes the notion of a successful Iraqi transition to democracy absurd.

Middle Eastern experts are skeptics because the term "Arab democracy" appears to be an oxymoron.

Experts in comparative politics are skeptical because Iraq is an oil exporter, and these "rentier states" are traditionally correlated with authoritarianism (click here for a dissenting view).

In other words, lots of experts agree that the local conditions for a liberal democracy in Iraq are not good.

These people make solid arguments, but overlooks one crucial detail -- international factors are more important than domestic factors in determining the success of democratic transition and consolidation.

The international dimension matters in two ways. First, to quote one standard text on democratization:

"the most frequent context within which a transition from authoritarian rule has begun in recent decades has been military defeat in an international conflict. Moreover, the factor which most probabilistically assured a democratic outcome was occupation by a foreign power which was itself a political democracy." (my italics)

This argument has already been out there, and is usually countered by citing the myriad domestic roadblocks combined with the point that military occupation alone does not guarantee a democratic transition. Here's where the second part kicks in -- transitions to market democracy are easier when your neighbors are market democracies. One study has found this to hold for the post-communist countries (click here for more) and there is no reason to believe that the effect is limited to that region.

It would seem that Iraq would fare poorly along this dimension, but consider:

1) Turkey is a democracy and borders Iraq to the north.
2) Iran might not be liberal, but it is a democracy, and borders Iraq to the east.
3) Jordan is more democratic than most Middle Eastern governments and borders Iraq to the west
4) There is promising evidence of democratic institutions in Kurdish Iraq

So, I'm optimistic.

posted by Dan on 03.05.03 at 02:23 PM