- How do you transform a society that has been under the
iron thumb of a tyrant for decades? How do you get people who are ethnically,
culturally and theologically fragmented to head in the same direction toward
building a unified state? Who has the final say in what the people want?
If they get it, will any or all of them be content with the outcome? Who
is available to guide this process? What do the guides themselves want?
Will any system the guides impose be enduring? What happens if the guides
give up in disgust and leave? What happens if their guidance is rejected
and they are asked to leave?
- Baghdad is a uniquely interesting place to seek answers
to such questions, because it has been a power center of varying importance
for three thousand years. It is in the territory of Biblical Nineveh,
and boosters say that somewhere there was the Garden of Eden, not an unlikely
possibility, given that the human history of this region goes back thousands
of years even before Baghdad. Iraq has been in the middle of the road for
millennia for reasons of location and endowment. It was a way station
on ancient trade routes that slowly tied Asia, the Middle East, Europe
and North Africa together in patterns of commerce, but more important it
possesses two of the great rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and the
Euphrates, known locally as the Dijlis and the Furat.
- With that illustrious past Iraq never has enjoyed a singular
culture, a society with common values and goals. In fact, Iraq as now
bounded did not even exist until the British cobbled it together in the
early 1920s out of Kurdish, Turkomen, Arab, Iranian and other tribes who
happened to have occupied their parts of the present Iraqi space for centuries
without getting together.
- A succession of leaders of modern Iraq struggled with
those disparities in their human landscape. In the past 100 years the
country has been ruled as part of the Ottoman Empire, as part of the British
Empire, as a monarchy, as a republic, and under Saddam Hussein as a brutal
autocracy. Bloodletting has been a common feature of the political landscape,
and while conspiracy was not invented here, it was certainly refined.
- Aside from the persistent problems of political confusion
and external domination that have plagued Iraq, the most persistent drag
on human development has been scarcity. Scarcity of food, shelter, health
care, safety, raw materials, and opportunity cause the ethnic, cultural
and religious groups to circle their wagons and depend on strong internal
loyalties and relationships. Saddam,s rule made these tendencies even more
pronounced, and part of any exultation from his fall is due to release
from the severe hardships his rule imposed. However, much of the fear and
uncertainty that now pervades Iraq stem from the other scarcities that
still dominate, and cause the Iraqi people to depend on imports for much
of everything they need except oil. Unless these scarcities can be overcome
in significant degree, the chances of creating sound and solid relations
between Iraq,s main groups will be very limited.
- In this setting, the problem is not what form of government
to install in Iraq but how to get the great majority of people in Iraq
to sign on to a consensus. The solution to that problem is not likely
to be a democracy with majority rule, but a hierarchy of tribal, ethnic
and religious leaders who effectively represent their own constituencies
while reaching an agreement on protecting each other,s free space and exploiting
the benefits of modern technology for the society as a whole. Those leaders
have to be chosen by their own communities by a process acceptable to that
community. The Iraqi Shia, who are as diverse as the Shiites tend to be
in their varied beliefs and ethnicity"the free will crowd of Islam"are
certainly the largest group and may have a narrow statistical majority.
Indications are however that if they were to obtain political control
of the place their decisions would be a serious backward step causing Iraq
to descend into the anarchy that bedevils much of its history.
- There are specific risks in this situation for the United
States. One of those risks lies with the fact that as foreign critics
and a growing number of American ones see it our democracy is faltering
in important respects. Two criticisms are immediately manifest. One concerns
the surge in political power of the protestant religious conservatives
whose views on Islam are primitive to say the least. At home their effort
to push the nation toward compliance with fundamentalist Christian beliefs
is a problem, especially for a society as diverse as American society now
is. But more than that, it appears to be a bad example for Islamic societies.
- The second criticism concerns the power of the political,
media and economic elites whose icons regularly rotate among each other,s
chairs and missions and whose actions largely ignore the will or the interests
of the people. As seen by critics, American political leaders are selected
by electoral processes, but they are not by that token properly representative
of or attentive to the public interest. If representatives of these leadership
groups are allowed to dominate US decision-making on the political future
of Iraq, then Iraqis will once again face the reality of domination by
outsiders, and this will drive severe militant and insurgent activity against
the Coalition. Americans will once again be confronted with the consequences
of inappropriate responses to Iraqi realities, however much these responses
may satisfy US preferences.
- The model of American democracy defined by critics exports
reasonably well to the extent that most other countries are ruled by established
elites who know how to work the system. However, the pure form that is
being talked about for Iraq does not fit the Iraqi case and almost certainly
would not work even in the United States. There are several reasons for
this. One vital precept of our democracy is majority rule, and our founding
fathers were well aware that it would not serve us, as indicated in their
crafting of the Bill of Rights. Moreover, as our society has diversified,
we have had to find satisfactory ways to amend and limit that concept to
properly reflect the rights and interests of a growing pool of minorities.
We have come a long way in that process, even though some minorities would
argue that we are still not there in terms of equality of representation
- The clear danger in Iraq is that an idealized or even
ideological concept of American democracy, based on majority rule, will
backfire. To start with, the Shia majority ethnically is a mix of Arabs,
Kurds and Iranians. The Sunnis, the second largest group, are split between
Kurds and Arabs. Turkomen, many of them Muslims, and Assyrians who are
mainly Christian, plus a small Jewish community make up the rest. Religion,
which makes the Shia Iraq,s borderline majority, has not served to bring
them all together politically. Rather, tribalism and ethnicity appear
to have mattered at least as much as religion. However, the adoption of
majority rule on a national level could cause the Shia to come together
on religious grounds, creating a situation in which an internal majority
of conservative Shia could drive the larger Shia community toward fundamentalism.
That outcome would cause many modernizing and westernizing attributes of
the Saddam and earlier eras to be lost or repressed.
- Meanwhile, the 35 years of Saddam,s dominant role in
Iraqi affairs, as well as a century of exposure to the rest of the world,
have generated a sizeable middle class and secular element in many areas
of Iraqi society. Ironically, Saddam himself promoted a secular leadership
class, but its power in a political process has not been tested due to
the repressive weight of Saddam ,s rule. Moreover, women, who prospered
in many areas under Saddam,s rule, could conceivably have a key role in
making the secular element dominant in an electoral process. If that were
to occur, and various religious, ethnic and tribal clusters could be assured
of their free space, a new era could truly be launched in Iraqi political
- Whatever the outcome, the decisions on how they will
be governed and by whom must be entirely Iraqi. Developments since World
War I and the emergence of Iraqi nationalism have turned the country into
a nation that it never was before. Instead of identifying with their cities
of origin as in the past, Iraqi,s generally identify themselves today as
Iraqis. For this purpose putting aside tribal, ethnic and religious differences,
Iraqis have agreed on only one abiding goal: to get rid of foreign domination.
They have willingly submerged their community differences in a common effort
to expel foreign rulers, e.g. other Arab monarchs, British puppets or Nasserite
- Objections to rule by the Coalition are already widespread
and obvious. The way to harness that energy in rebuilding Iraq is to show
not only that Coalition leaders understand the situation, but also that
the sooner the Iraqis can agree on a suitable representative form of government
the quicker the Coalition will withdraw. The Coalition stay in Iraq should
be governed by achievement of this goal, granting that it may take a while.
The highest US priority should be to clearly and repeatedly articulate
this precondition to our departure. The US should also recognize that it
could greatly enhance the credibility of the process as well as its chances
for success if, at the earliest feasible moment, the Coalition were to
hand electoral oversight authority over to the United Nations.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org