Friday, January 16, 2004

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Can Iraq become a democracy?

I've argued repeatedly that Iraq is not fated to be an authoritarian state. Your weekend reading debates this topic at length.

In the "No" corner is George F. Will, who's meandering essay in City Journal can be boiled down to the following highlights:

Most of the political calamities through which the world has staggered since 1919 have resulted from the distinctively modern belief that things—including nations and human nature—are much more plastic, much more malleable, than they actually are. It is the belief that nations are like Tinkertoys: they can be taken apart and rearranged at will. It is the belief that human beings are soft clay that can be shaped by the hands of political artists….

It is counted realism in Washington now to say that creating a new Iraqi regime may require perhaps two years. One wonders: Does Washington remember that it took a generation, and the United States Army, to bring about, in effect, regime change—a change of institutions and mores—in the American South? Will a Middle Eastern nation prove more plastic to our touch than Mississippi was? Will two years suffice for America—as Woodrow Wilson said of the Latin American republics—to teach Iraq to elect good men? We are, it seems, fated to learn again the limits of the Wilsonian project.

There are those who say: “Differences be damned! America has a duty to accomplish that project.” They should remember an elemental principle of moral reasoning: there can be no duty to do what cannot be done.

What is to be done in Iraq? As Robert Frost said, the best way out is always through. We are there. We dare not leave having replaced a savage state with a failed state—a vacuum into which evil forces will flow. Our aim should be the rule of law, a quickened pulse of civil society, some system of political representation. Then, let us vow not to take on such reconstructions often.

In the Atlantic Monthly, Francis Fukuyama recognizes the same problems as Will but argues that there is no other option:

The fact is that the chief threats to us and to world order come today from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Weak or absent government institutions in developing countries form the thread linking terrorism, refugees, AIDS, and global poverty. Before 9/11 the United States felt it could safely ignore chaos in a far-off place like Afghanistan; but the intersection of religious terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has meant that formerly peripheral areas are now of central concern....

Donald Rumsfeld has articulated a strategy of nation-building "lite," involving a rapid transition to local control and a tough-love policy that leaves locals to find their own way toward good government and democracy. This is a dubious approach, at least if one cares about the final outcome. The new Iraqi government will be administratively weak and not regarded by its citizens as fully legitimate. It will be plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and riven by internal disagreements—witness the fight between the Iraqi Governing Council's Shia and non-Shia members over how to draft a new constitution. Nation-building requires a lot more than training police and military forces to take over from the United States: unless such forces are embedded in a strong framework of political parties, a judiciary, a civilian administration, and a rule of law, they will become mere pawns in the internal struggle for power. Nation-building "lite" risks being used as an intellectual justification for getting out, regardless of the mess we leave behind.

A standing U.S. government office to manage nation-building will be a hard sell politically, because we are still unreconciled to the idea that we are in the nation-building business for the long haul. However, international relations is no longer just a game played between great powers but one in which what happens inside smaller countries can have a huge effect on the rest of the world. Our "empire" may be a transitional one grounded in democracy and human rights, but our interests dictate that we learn how better to teach other people to govern themselves.

Now, for a first-hand account, check out Ken Pollack's assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq. The executive summary:

The situation in Iraq is extremely complex. In some areas, American and Coalition efforts have helped Iraqis to make real progress toward transforming their economy, polity, and society. What's more, many basic factors in the country augur well for real progress if the pace of reconstruction is maintained. By the same token, there are also numerous negative developments in the country, many the result of mistaken American policies.

David Adesnik provides extended commentary as well.

That's your weekend reading. Enjoy!!

posted by Dan on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM


Is this going to be on the test?

posted by: Al on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

Please, someone tell Francis that Iraq was neither failed, collapsed or weak.

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

A truism of nation-building, or more accurately, client-state building, is that dictatorships are easier to work with. This model has been popular in the previous century specifically for the reasons that Bush and Co. may be finding out just about now: it's difficult to install and control a democracy, and if it all goes to hell, you look really, really incompetent.

If Iraq flies apart, or becomes a theocracy, then not only is there a potentially US-unfriendly state to complicate things, but politics in the whole region will become messy. Which is presumably the opposite of why the US went in in the first place.

posted by: Stu on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

I believe that it isn't easy to install a democracy in a country that has been 30 years under a despotic rule, one where the population has almost daily seen the disadvantages of thinking for themselves.

Last year we saw the results of a popular vote: 100% for Saddam. Not 99.999%, but 100.000. Even allowing for a certain amount of ballot-box stuffing, for the fact that there were precious few opponents on the ballot, and for some vother persuasion from Saddam's suporters, it still doesn't say much for the people.

And not just 30 years of rule from the top in Iraq: thousands of years of autocratic rule in that part of the world.

So I'm in Will's camp.

What makes it all a little bizarre is that stand of the Iraqi mullahs, who are incensed that Washington wants to start with an appointed government, rather than a directly-elected one:

"Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite Muslim figure, has demanded that members of a new provisional legislature be chosen by the voters. The Americans want them selected in a series of regional caucuses."

Of course, al-Sistani just might be motivated by the past history of elections in Iraq, where the outcome is decided long before the vote.

posted by: Mike on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

Excuse me, but I think Dan is behind on his reading. According to MSNBC the US-appointed Iraqi National Council has already voted to take away the rights of Iraqi women. This furthermore was proposed by the conservative Shiite clerics, who have gotten rid of the relatively modern secular law governing Iraqi marriage, divorce, women's rights, etc. and instead have replaced it with fundamentalist Islamic law often known as sharia.

The Shiites have shown their hand, and it sure ain't pretty. After seeing this, the Kurds are going to twice as worried about giving up autonomy and the Sunni's are about be scared sh*tless about what happens when Shiites get in charge (and start dishing out the generations of payback they owe the Sunni's). This is not by itself a sure sign of failure in Iraq, but it is pretty damning.

That's the problem with "democratization" advocacy, it tends to treat overthrowing stable autocracies as immediate and tangible goods while treating radical populist takeover as distant and abstract evils. Well ... it's kind of the reverse in real life. Don't tell that to the theorists though.

posted by: Oldman on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

So let's see if I get this right. The Iraq War has resulted in the sharpest decline in American prestige around the world in our nation's history. But since the American people aren't prepared to pay the price to ensure the establishment of a constitutional democracy in Iraq, we are going to leave the country to its fate, thereby creating another unstable failed islamic nation (Afganistan being the first), this time in the heart of the world's biggest oil producing region. Doesn't that put the Iraq initiative up there with Viet Nam as one of the all time greatest foreign policy fiascos?

posted by: Badger on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

While bringing democracy to Iraq is a noble idea, just having a country elect leaders democraticly by itself doesn't give me much of a warm fuzzy. While democracies are less likely than other forms of government to be tyrranical or invade their neighbors, if a strong majority of people are intent on suppressing the rights of a smaller group or want to invade their neighbors, democracy is no obstacle.

I also wonder if Arab and Muslim society in gerneral has the neccessary western values to make a democracy based on liberty and free-market economics work.

The idea that every culture has the same basic vlaues but just differ on the margins is a common mistake that westerners in particular make. I'm coming around to the opinion that a society must have basic "western" ideas BEFORE it can function democratically. Not the other way around. The only reason democracy works western civilization is that because a vast majority of us believe in it. I'm not sure that's the case in other cultures, specifically Arab and/or Muslim.

Any comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam shows that you know nothing about either conflict.

posted by: DSpears on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

I agree with you that democracy is not necessarily an appropriate goal for Iraq. Democracy is a means to the end of good government and not an end in itself. In the present case, democracy can lead, for example, to supression of women and oil policy by plebiscite. The promotion of democracy is, however, a central tenet of Bush administration middle east policy. It's not like we are in the process of choosing a tough but fair strongman to take over Iraq riught now.

As for Viet Nam, the scale of american and vietnamese fatalities and the presence of major power backing of the enemy clearly differentiate that conflict from Iraq. However, they may both turn out to be grave foreign policy debacles for the United States. In each case, there was a serious loss of international prestige for the U.S. and, potentially in the case of Iraq, a failed mission. And in Vietnam we at least continued to protect ourselves against the real threat, nuclear aggression, whereas in the present case we have pursued Iraq at the expense of protection against the real threat of nuclear terrorism by neglecting problems in Pakistan, North Korea, and the former Soviet republics and not adequately addressing festering sores in Israel and Afganistan.

posted by: Badger on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

Haveta agree with Badger here on the logic issue. Suppose we had another world war. We could say without any knowledge of the particulars, that it would be the biggest world-wide conflict since WWII without implying any comparison of the details in the theoretical WWIII and the historical WWII. Same way, you could hypothesize that Iraq War II will be (it ain't yet... yet) the biggest foreign policy fiasco since Vietnam ... though any honest historian would have to put the Shah-"restoration" of Iran in there as well ... without implying any internal similarities between the situations. And causualities themselves aren't necessarily a good measure of debacles ... clearly the Iranian theocratic revolution was a huge debacle and just a "handful" of American lives were lost. It was the political consequences that made it bad, and causalties are just the insult on top of the injury so ta speak.

posted by: Oldman on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

After Pollack cried Wolfowitz before the war -- believing Hamza for Pete sake! -- he's lost all credibility.

I must say, however, that Pollack's assessments and recommendations echo the Pentagon's report on Iraq, released back in July. Bremer didn't follow the Pentagon's advice either.

It's all very well for Pollack and Fukuyama to say that "failure is not an option," but our troops -- with all due respect -- are not trained for peacekeeping, receive poor intelligence, and don't speak the language; while our civilian administrators are incompetent and permanently understaffed. Given all this, our best option might be to organize a real election as soon as possible, and obey the Iraqis if they tell us to leave. ("Cut-and-run" as the "serious" people say.)

posted by: Carl on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

"Failure is not an option" is the sort of
trite, glib nonsense that barely conceals
the naivete of those who utter these words.
Indeed, it is not an option: it is, sadly,
inevitable. At least that's my conclusion
after reading this piece on Atrios:

a sadly sobering piece...

posted by: Steve Evans on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

What I STILL don't understand is why there is so little discussion of elected Iraqi mayors of towns. Local democracy can be learned earlier, with less risk, and more legitimate US oversight, at the municipal level. With the likely beneficial side effect of developing a corps of elected mayors, who are more likely to prefer the benign non-interference of a US occupation over a nosy powerful central authority.

Of course FAILURE is an option, but it's also a definitional issue. If the central authority's main job is to keep the local gov'ts from violating human rights, while the locals learn how to govern, local democracy can work.

Yes, the Arabs need to learn the lesson of a Loyal Opposition; and respect for Free Speech. Free speech is more important than democracy; you can't keep democracy without free speech. You'll be pushed towards democracy with it, even if it's a temporary CPA.

Note that no Arab country has free speech. Nor local elections with real opposition candidates. Free speech, and opposition, should be first goal.

posted by: Tom Grey on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

we will "hand over" iraq just as we handed over afghanistan...

solely to say we did it, while still being thee, running the country, and providing security while we do the multi year (perhpas a decade) process of consolidating a liberal government

after all, we are still occupying germany, we just don't rub it in their faces much

posted by: hey on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

The Vietnam war harmed our prestige around the world because it made us look weak. Osama Bin Laden based his idea for the 9/11 attacks on the idea that a post Vietnam America would cower as soon as it experienced a few casualties. Mogadishu confirmed this experience for Bin Laden. Opposition to the Vietnam war was simply opposition to the draft. When the draft went away, so did the protesters, even though we were still in Vietnam.

The Iraq war enhanced our prestige: It showed the tyrants and dictators of the world that they can no longer hide behind the United Nations. The UN is powerless to protect these dictators anymore, just as it has been powerless to protect their victems. Their connections in Paris are useless now. Colonel Quadafi knows this better than anybody. He chose peace over destruction. A wise move for himself and his people.

2 completely different conflicts, 2 completely different outcomes.

posted by: DSpears on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

I completely disagree with DSpears.
bin Laden did not base his attacks on
the notion that America would cower.
Just the opposite: his bet was
that America would
overreact by (1) leaving Saudi Arabia;
(2) getting rid of the secular Saddam;
and (3) inflaming the Muslim world.
So far, it's been a trifecta for Osama.
He might as well campaign for Bush's

posted by: Steve Evans on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

I don't know how DSpears can interpret the Iraq War as a display of American strength. I think that in many ways it has displayed our weakness. We showed that despite our military and material advantages in the world and diverse and serious threats to our interests, that the United States in the space of four years was able to muster only about 200,000 troops for military action. With these troops it was able to topple 1 lightweight government and 1 middleweight government but was unable to establish order in either country. Polls showed that the American people, who are nowhere near as imperialistic as British or the Romans were in their respective epochs, were not willing to pay the price needed to establish strong successor states and our politicians lacked the will to go against the wished of the people. Both nations may very well end up as ongoing sources of instability and terrorist inspiration. For example, Al Qaeda is reportedly making a fortune now in the Afghan heroin trade. Meanwhile, we did not aggressively address more serious challenges to our national security in Pakistan, North Korea, and the former Soviet Republics or the Israeli-Palestinian problem. In these troubled times, it is vitally important to use our limited resources wisely. The defense of the Republicans that "at least we were doing something" doesn't cut it.

posted by: badger on 01.16.04 at 05:07 PM [permalink]

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