Democracy On Trial In Iraq

By Terrell E. Arnold

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 and participation.
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 life.
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 Egyptian advocates.
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



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