Rolling Democratic Dice in Iraq

December 22, 2003 • Commentary
This article was published in Insight magazine, December 22, 2003.

President George W. Bush is rolling the democratic dice in Iraq and gambling that the formation of democratic institutions there can stimulate a democratic political culture. If he is proved correct it will mean a democratic first, for what Bush seeks to achieve in Iraq has never been accomplished before. On the contrary, the available evidence strongly suggests that the relationship between institutions and culture works the other way around.

A political culture shapes democracy far more than democracy shapes the political culture. The building blocks of a modern, democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, legislatures and constitutions. Rather, they are found amidst supportive cultural values and apt economic conditions.

Gen. Tommy Franks clearly did his homework before engaging Iraq in military combat, but there are red faces throughout the Bush administration over the lack of preparation for the political challenge of post‐​Saddam Iraq. Vivid demonstrations of religious fervor and undemocratic intent, viewed in tandem with clerics who have taken the political initiative by gaining control of numerous villages, towns and sections of major cities, caught U.S. political leadership completely off guard.

Whether it’s setting up Islamic courts of justice or applying pressure against liquor distributors, music stores, cinemas and unveiled women, religious fundamentalists have taken advantage of the free‐​for‐​all that is postwar Iraq to browbeat their communities into a stricter Islamic way of life. Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, Kurds have forced Arabs from homes and land originally confiscated from the Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s tenure.

To pour fuel on this fire, Ba’athist gangs rapidly have reorganized and with violent consequences. In a very revealing move, Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, canceled local elections after concluding that the likely outcomes would be unfavorable to U.S. interests. A classified State Department report warned that “anti‐​American sentiment is so pervasive that Iraqi elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic‐​controlled governments hostile to the United States.”

In all likelihood Bush will be gravely disappointed with the result of his effort to establish democracy in Iraq. Mounting evidence strongly suggests that Iraq’s democratic journey will be slow, treacherous and littered with setbacks.

It is true that a fairly high level of popular support exists in Iraq for the concept of democracy. Most Iraqis superficially agree with Winston Churchill that democracy may have its problems but it is better than any other form of government. But that is not enough. In practice, overt support for democracy is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for democratic institutions to emerge. In fact, individual‐​level lip service to democracy is only weakly related to a truly liberal democratic society.

The long‐​term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture that solidly supports democracy. A liberal democracy requires a framework of liberal political norms and values, as well as the foundation of a pluralistic civil society. Hypothetical support for representative government provides neither sufficient stimulus nor staying power for democracy to take root.

What are the specific cultural factors that play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a liberal democracy? The first is political trust. This is the assumption that one’s opponent will accept the rules of the democratic process and surrender power if he or she loses an election. The second factor is social tolerance, i.e., the acceptance of traditionally unpopular minority groups, such as homosexuals. The third factor is popular support for gender equality. Fourth is a widespread recognition of the importance of basic political liberties, such as freedom of speech and popular participation in political decisionmaking at all levels.

Unfortunately in Iraq most of these critical ingredients are either absent or were diminished by years of benign or deliberate neglect. In Iraqi society, prevailing levels of political trust, social tolerance, gender equality and political activism fall far short of what is found in all successful democracies.

Like other societies, the condition of Iraqi democracy is tied to the respective political culture. A political culture, in turn, is clearly related to the respective level of economic development, specifically rising living standards and the independence of a large, thriving middle class. Democratization is much more likely to occur — and to take hold — in richer, rather than in poorer, nations.

Leading political scientists have demonstrated that as a person’s values change, that person’s political behavior supports more stable levels of democracy. In practice, a high standard of living legitimizes both the new democratic institutions and the new democracy’s political class. Iraq will not be a stable democratic nation until it is much wealthier.

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. Significant numbers of Iraqis subscribe to many of the medieval conventions of Islamic law — from unquestioning obedience to tribal elders to polygamy, revenge‐​killings and blood money paid to the relatives of persons killed in feuds.

Iraqi political culture still is dominated by identity politics — the elevation of ethnic and religious solidarity over all other values, including individual liberty. In this deeply paternalistic political culture, political leaders frequently are portrayed as larger‐​than‐​life, heroic figures able to rescue the masses from danger or despair.

In such an environment most 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. Consequently, political freedom is an alien concept to most Iraqis.

At present, Iraq’s educated middle class can contribute modestly to the democratization of their country, but it does not constitute a critical mass capable of moderating and channeling the political debate. Ironically, Ba’ath Party members have lost their party but most have kept their jobs as they collectively constitute the most skilled, yet undemocratic, constituency in Iraqi politics.

In reality Iraq looks closer to anarchy than democracy. How did the White House stumble into this dangerous predicament? Ironically, the Bush administration accepted the antiwar argument that Iraq was too secular a country to foster a populist, religious‐​based antipathy to U.S. interests.

But the notion of a secular Iraq requires considerable qualification. During the last 35 years Iraq’s outward appearance of religious moderation largely reflected the Hussein regime’s preference for institutionalized thuggery over religious fanaticism. The Ba’athist Party that provided Saddam’s political backbone was philosophically and operationally fascist, inspired more by the muscular Arab nationalism adapted from European Nazism than by dreams of an Islamic afterlife.

Saddam himself sprang politically from Iraq’s minority Muslim sect, the Sunnis, whose moderation is measured relative to Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority — a sizable proportion of which adheres to the faith promulgated by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic leadership.

Does the Shia community’s numerical strength foreshadow serious problems for a democratic Iraq? At the very least, the explosion of Shia sentiment vividly illustrates the complex nature of Iraqi society. There exist centuries‐​old religious and ethnic hatreds, as well as intense, frequently violent, tribal and clan rivalries.

Historically, no Iraqi government, including Saddam’s, has survived without significant tribal support. During the 1990s the two dominant Kurdish political organizations fought a very bloody four‐​year civil war. While their recent rhetoric is more political than militaristic, a leading Kurdish politician proudly asserts, “We still believe in tribes. Tribes are the way forward, not political parties.”

Today popular debate is focused more on past injustices than on future possibilities. Therefore, Iraq’s new political institutions must be designed to prevent the long‐​suppressed but currently better organized, more motivated and better financed fundamentalist Shia from exacting revenge upon the Sunnis and ignoring the legitimate needs of the Kurds and Christians. It is going to take a highly skilled navigator successfully to map a course through the diverse currents sweeping Iraq’s domestic politics.

Iraqi politics is truly something of a hornet’s nest. The extensive political maneuvering among opposition groups is a serious obstacle to implementing representative government. Each group wants to benefit from the end of the Saddam era, preferably at the expense of its rivals.

In the very long term, perhaps the Iraqi democratic reconstruction project will be successful. But it will be a good deal harder than White House theorists originally expected because this project is not just about establishing electoral democracy — it really is about establishing liberal democracy.

There is a real danger in holding national elections too soon. Before elections take place, the tangible foundations of a free, open and civil society need to be built. It is one thing to adopt formal democracy but quite another to attain stable democracy. It is critically important that Iraq’s first national election not be its last.

Bush may need to compromise his democratic ideals with a healthy dose of pragmatism. What may be desirable in Iraq in the short to medium term is democracy lite, i.e., democratic gradualism. One must appreciate that 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 in Iraq is a very unrealistic prospect.

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