Flying Blind on the Path to a Democratic Iraq

May 4, 2003 • Commentary

Vivid demonstrations of Shiite religious fervor and undemocratic intent last week caught our political leaders completely off guard. While Gen. Tommy Franks clearly did his homework before engaging Iraq in military combat, there are red faces throughout the Bush administration over the lack of preparation for the political challenge of a post‐​Saddam Iraq.

How did this happen? Ironically, the Bush administration accepted the anti‐​war argument that Iraq was too secular a country to foster a populist, religious‐​based antipathy to American interests. In reality, however, the notion of a secular Iraq requires considerable qualification. Iraq’s outward appearance largely stemmed from the Hussein regime’s preference for institutionalized thuggery over religious fanaticism.

The Baathist party that provided Saddam’s political backbone was philosophically and operationally fascist, inspired more by mid‐​century European Nazism than by dreams of an Islamic afterlife. Saddam sprang from central Iraq’s minority Muslim sect, the Sunnis, whose moderation is measured relative to Iraq’s Muslim majority, the southern‐​based Shiites, a significant proportion of whom adhere to the faith promulgated by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic leadership.

Does the strength of the Shiite Muslim community foreshadow trouble for a democratic Iraq? The explosion of Shiite sentiment vividly illustrates the complex, heterogeneous nature of Iraqi society. There exist centuries‐​old religious and ethnic hatreds, as well as intense, frequently violent, tribal, and clan rivalries.

A balance of power must be achieved, for example, between those subscribing to different interpretations of the Muslim faith. Iraq’s new political institutions must be designed to prevent the long suppressed but currently better organized, more motivated, and better financed Shiites from exacting revenge upon the Sunnis and ignoring the needs of the northern Kurds, Christians, and urban secularists.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about the chances of Iraq establishing a stable, democratic political system in the short‐​to‐​medium term. 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.

Clearly, 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. More than 75 percent of Iraqis belong to one of 150 tribes and significant numbers 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 still 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. The United States is attempting to sow the seeds of 21st century political institutions in the soil of a 15th century political culture. In coming seasons, a bountiful democratic harvest is an unrealistic prospect.

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