Commentary

Democracy in Iraq, Acts I and II

By Patrick Basham
December 8, 2003

The good news is that the Bush administration now acknowledges the failure of its initial democratization policy in Iraq. The bad news is that the White House now thinks it has a better idea. The reality is that President Bush, having rhetorically raised the democratic bar sky high, can guarantee the Iraqi people, at best, nothing more than Afghanistan-style democracy, and that’s nothing to brag about.

Act 1 of the attempt to democratize Iraq, which you may have forgotten by now, unfolded as follows:

During the summer, Amb. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s civilian administrator, handpicked a Governing Council to serve as a de facto interim government until national elections were held. But the council is an advisory, not a governing, body. Not only is security excluded from the council’s remit, but also Bremer retains veto power over all of the council’s decisions.

The council was composed primarily along ethnic and religious lines, thereby institutionalizing ethnic and religious divisions. Iraqis dismissed the council as an unelected, unrepresentative, and, therefore, illegitimate puppet of the American “occupation.”

The protracted steps taken to date toward developing a new constitution have further made clear the fault lines in Iraqi society. A preparatory committee failed to agree on delegates to a constitutional convention and thus did not meet a Sept. 30 deadline to present a recommendation to the Governing Council. The UN Security Council subsequently requested that the Governing Council propose a timetable for the drafting of a constitution and subsequent democratic elections by Dec. 15.

But the White House correctly forecasts that the mid-December deadline, and any future deadlines, will pass without decisive action. President Bush can’t afford to wait a couple of years, or more. He has an election race to run next year.

Hence, Act II. All indications are that Bremer will dust off an approach he rejected several months ago, i.e., an attempt to duplicate the democratic “gift” the Bush administration bestowed upon newly liberated Afghanistan.

That’s the approach long favored by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, a UN-sponsored Grand Council of Afghani tribal elders, held in Bonn, Germany, in Dec. 2001, announced the formation of an interim government and elected Hamid Karzai as president.

In the Iraqi context, Bremer would organize a comparable US-run conference that appoints members of an interim Iraqi administration. The interim administration, equipped with real power, would run the day-to-day government for a transitional period until a constitution is written and elections are organized.

Afghanistan, however, provides an especially sobering reminder that democratic seeds planted in inhospitable soil won’t take root.

The current political outlook in Afghanistan is uncertain, to say the least, despite the Bush administration’s pledge to reconstitute that country’s political system. Unfortunately, President Karzai is little more than the de facto mayor of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Beyond the capital, Afghanistan is partitioned with tribal warlords exercising dictatorial power over each region.

The Bonn conference set Afghanistan’s first democratic national election for June 2004 (although it may now be postponed until at least 2005). There is considerable concern within the State Department that these elections will merely rubber-stamp — and legalize — the warlords’ de facto political fiefdoms.

Historian Amatzia Baram, an expert on modern Iraqi politics, cautions: “As the US experience in Afghanistan suggests, giving too much power to tribal sheikhs may turn some of them into independent warlords whom the central government will be unable to control.” But powerful, frequently illiberal, tribal and religious political leadership is exactly what is in store for Iraq under any foreseeable set of circumstances.

Applying the Afghani model will speed the American withdrawal from Iraq and will be popular among the Iraqi people. Both are good things. But let’s not pretend that a liberal democracy will spring to life in Iraq. Even after the occupying forces abandon Iraq, its economic woes, and those deep ethnic and religious divisions will remain.

A foreign power can do little to advance democracy’s evolutionary clock beyond the limits imposed by the domestic society’s economic and cultural development. This fact cannot be altered by Washington’s wishful thinking or noble intent. But it can be acknowledged as a first step to lowering a democratic bar that currently hovers dangerously high over Iraq.

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