No Quick Democracy in Iraq

May 5, 2004 • Commentary

It’s clear now that Iraq will not transform into a democracy anytime soon. The uninspiring, but inescapable, fact is that Saddam Hussein never stood between the Iraqi people and Western‐​style democracy.

The Iraqi dictator was justifiably despised by most of his fellow countrymen. A Saddam‐​free Iraq may have been a little wealthier; it may even have been a little freer. But it would not have been a liberal democracy without Saddam, and it will not be a democracy significantly faster now.

The end of Saddam as a political leader does nothing to alter the fundamental incompatibility of Iraqi society with liberal democracy, or to alter the nature of democratization, as experienced around the globe over the past several decades.

It is very hard, therefore, to be optimistic about the chances of post‐​Saddam Iraq establishing a stable, liberal democratic political system, at least in the short‐​to‐​medium‐​term. Such pessimism stems from an appreciation of, first, Iraqi history and, second, what causes democracy to flourish in a society. Iraq has never had a genuine democracy in its modern history. Since its establishment by the British in the 1920s, Iraq has witnessed the rise and fall of successive brutal authoritarian regimes, competing ruthlessly for power and resources.

Iraq lacks the economic, social, and cultural conditions that set the stage for democratic change elsewhere. It has no previous experience with democracy, hasn’t experienced prolonged periods of economic growth and rising living standards, and, as a Middle Eastern nation, does not benefit from regional, locally grown pressure to democratize.

The building blocks of a modern democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, and legislatures. Rather, the building blocks of democracy are found amidst supportive cultural values. In short, the long‐​term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture.

A democratic political culture demands the non‐​violent transfer of power, extends legal protection and equality of opportunity to women, tolerates religious, ethnic, racial, and social minorities, and recognizes the importance of fundamental political liberties such as freedom of speech and popular participation in decision‐​making.

Larry Diamond, an expert on democratization, bluntly states that “Iraq lacks virtually every possible precondition for democracy.” Absent tangible support for liberal political norms and values, and without the foundation of a pluralistic civil society, it is next to impossible for democracy to take root. That reality was borne out over the past generation in numerous countries where authoritarian regimes were displaced by newly democratic regimes but democratization failed due to shallow foundations.

In Iraq, most of the ingredients critical to the development of a civil society are either absent or were diminished by decades of benign or deliberate neglect by Saddam and his predecessors. Iraqi society has suffered through periods of colonial rule, monarchy, Arab nationalism, and fascist revolution. In such a society, prevailing levels of political trust, social tolerance, popular support for political liberty, and gender equality fall far short of what is found in all established democracies.

Iraq’s democratization will be hindered by cultural and religious factors that neither stimulate nor foster political liberty. Iraqi political organizations are not ready to concede defeat in a political contest. Critically, both the Shiite and Sunni Muslim religions prescribe a decidedly anachronistic view of a woman’s role in society.

A political culture shapes democracy far more than democracy shapes the political culture. One must hope that, against all available evidence, contemporary Iraqi political culture has minimal influence on the new Iraqi democracy.

Democracy is an evolutionary development rather than an overnight phenomenon. No single day of good news from Iraq changes that reality.

About the Author