Commentary

Can Iraq Be Democratic?

By Patrick Basham
April 25, 2003

Is Iraq capable of moving swiftly from dictatorship to democracy? According to historian Bernard Lewis, an expert on the Muslim world, “In Europe, they are afraid it won’t be possible. In the Middle East, they are afraid it will be possible.”

As no Arab country is a functioning democracy, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the chances of Iraq establishing a stable, democratic political system. This pessimism stems from an appreciation of what causes democracy to flourish in a society. The long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture that solidly supports democracy.

The building blocks of a modern democratic political culture aren’t institutional (e.g., elections, parties, legislatures, and constitutions) in nature. Rather, they are found in apt economic conditions (e.g., rising living standards and a large, thriving middle class) and supportive cultural values (e.g., political trust, political participation, tolerance of minorities, and gender equality). In practice, economic development stimulates higher levels of democratic values in the political culture. As a person’s values change, these changes affect that person’s political behavior producing higher, more stable levels of democracy.

The economic and cultural conditions prevalent in Iraqi society fall far short of what is found in all established democracies. Like many of its Arab neighbors, Iraq has failed to come to terms with the modern world. For example, significant numbers of Iraqis subscribe to a traditional tribal culture that manifests itself in everything from unquestioning obedience to tribal sheiks to such anachronistic customs as polygamy.

This is a deeply paternalistic political culture in which political leaders are frequently portrayed as larger-than-life, heroic figures able to rescue the masses from danger or despair. In such an environment, ordinary people adopt a political passivity that acts as a brake on the development of ideas, such as personal responsibility and self-help, central to the development of economic and political liberalism. Iraqi political culture is characterized by “identity politics,” i.e., the elevation of ethno-religious solidarity over all other values, including individual liberty. Hence, political freedom is an alien concept to most Iraqis.

Until free elections can be organized in a year or two, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocates the formation of an interim Iraqi government composed of exiled Iraqi and Kurdish leaders, some of whom posses a modicum of practical democratic experience. Rumsfeld’s suggestion acknowledges that those living outside of Iraq are far more cognizant of democratic norms and values than current Iraqi residents, most of whom grew up under the repressive rule of Saddam’s fascistic Baath party.

Iraq’s educated middle class can contribute to the reconstruction and democratization of their country; but it doesn’t constitute a critical mass capable of moderating and channeling the political debate. However, most of the 1.5 million Baath party members will keep their regular jobs, as they collectively constitute the most skilled, yet undemocratic, constituency in Iraqi politics.

Recent Kurdish experience may be reason for cautious optimism but also demonstrates how slowly the collective mindset is changed. The largely autonomous regions of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq are relatively freer and better off than the rest of Iraq. But Kurdish political culture remains largely mired in terror-centered, Saddam-era authoritarianism. Frank political debate, for example, is almost unheard of, as tribal leaders from respective parties dominate specific regions and exhibit top-down leadership styles characteristic of the old Baathist party elite.

Saddam’s adaptation of the Stalinist economic model led to a totally nationalized economy, central planning, wage and price controls, and, hence, a stagnant economy. The fact that the Arab world once led Europe in economic development suggests a turnaround is possible. Over time, the introduction of capitalism will liberalize the economy en route to liberalizing Iraqi society. However, in the short-term an enormous financial burden may severely retard the economic development required for cultural change.

Economist Alan Krueger recently detailed the overwhelming debt load facing future generations of Iraqis. Will a newly capitalistic Iraq suffocate under the debt of the old regime? Courtesy of the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf War, Iraq’s financial obligations and foreign debt collectively stand at $383 billion, or $16,000 per capita in a country with a per capita GDP of just $2,500. Impoverished people do not place much value on the “luxuries” of political debate and dissent vital to civil society.

At this stage, optimists may care to consider Prof. Lewis’s historical reminder: “In the Islamic calendar, this is the beginning of the 15th century, not the 21st century. They are at a different stage of political evolution. One hopes that in the not too distant future they will have a Reformation.” But we should not count on such radical change occurring any time soon.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.