Commentary

Iraqi Democracy Stumbles at Starting Gate

By Patrick Basham
August 11, 2004

Iraq recently stumbled badly while taking its first steps along the treacherous course to democratic self-rule. American officials had unwisely described the success of a three-day political conference scheduled for the end of July as an essential step in Iraq’s political reconstruction. The conference, stipulated under a law enacted by the former U.S. Provisional Authority, was “postponed” after the political support beams collapsed. The prospects for a successful transition to representative government during 2005 are now dimmer than ever.

This summer’s handover of political sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government depended on the conference establishing a National Council. This quasi-parliamentary body would oversee the interim government until the first national election in January 2005 chooses members of a transitional legislative assembly. The National Council would approve the government’s 2005 budget, could veto the interim government’s decisions, and would have the authority to replace government ministers who resign or die in office.

This sounded like a sensible plan to inject a modicum of public input and oversight, however indirect, into the embryonic stages of Iraq’s Western-style political reconstruction. However, the recent machinations over the nature and make-up of the National Council clearly illustrate the enormous political hurdles that stand between a liberated Iraq and a stable and sustainable democratic political system.

Unfortunately, what sounds eminently attainable to Western ears usually proves impossible in a society as unprepared for democratic decision-making as contemporary Iraq. In a formula devised by the United Nations, the conference was to select 100 Iraqis to form the National Council. These 100 members were to be drawn from the 1,000 conference delegates, themselves chosen in caucus-style elections held throughout Iraq’s 18 provinces. Exactly how the conference would select the delegates was never made clear.

Several obstacles immediately came into view. First, some important religious and nationalist leaders and groups simply boycotted the process. Many important figures in contemporary Iraqi politics, each commanding the loyalty of significant numbers of Iraqis, unambiguously dismissed the process. These groups view the National Council as yet another instrument of American occupation. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comment that the conference would constitute a “stamp of approval” to the interim government only hardened this view.

Among the participating groups, logistical chaos, physical intimidation, and political bickering characterized the delegate selection process. In many areas, the caucus system broke down, as the participants were unable even to agree on the process by which conference delegates should be chosen. In some caucuses, political victory stemmed from an ability to marshal physical rather than intellectual ammunition.

Clearly, both the Bush administration and the U.S.-chosen interim government remain apprehensive about matching democratic rhetoric with democratic action. Forty-four percent of the conference delegates were not chosen along democratic lines at all. Instead, they were appointed as representatives of favored religious, political, and tribal groups.

The conference was scheduled to convene without any representation from Sunni religious parties with support in the politically volatile “Sunni triangle” north and west of Baghdad. Members and supporters of the old Governing Council were heavily represented, especially the former exiles whose political credibility is particularly low. Twenty-two of the 100 Council seats were already spoken for on behalf of former Governing Council members.

Many objected to the Kurds being guaranteed 25 percent of the delegates, even though the Kurds number less than one in seven Iraqis. Women were guaranteed one in four Council seats. The quota system itself reflects a belated American recognition that hostility to both Kurdish and female political participation permeates Iraqi society and constitutes a serious barrier to self-rule.

Both U.S. and Iraqi officials said a delayed conference would damage the credibility of the political transition. They were right. The conference fiasco resulted from the Bush administration, for the umpteenth time over the past 15 months, having raised the expectations bar too high for Iraq’s political culture to jump over. President Bush’s reelection campaign must now live with the embarrassment of yet another self-inflicted wound suffered as a consequence of idealistic theorizing holding sway over hardheaded realism.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and the author of “Can Iraq Be Democratic?