Can Iraq Be Democratic?

January 5, 2004 • Policy Analysis No. 505

Is Iraq capable of moving smoothly from dictatorship to democracy? This paper contends that the White House will be gravely disappointed with the result of its effort to establish a stable liberal democracy in Iraq, or any other nation home to a large population of Muslims or Arabs, at least in the short to medium term.

Why are Islamic (and especially Arab) countries’ democratic prospects so poor? After all, in most Muslim countries a high level of popular support exists for the concept of democracy. In practice, popular support for democracy is a necessary, but is not a sufficient, condition for democratic institutions to emerge. Other factors are necessary. Hypothetical support for representative government, absent tangible support for liberal political norms and values and without the foundation of a pluralistic civil society, provides neither sufficient stimulus nor staying power 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 because of shallow foundations.

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 supportive cultural values—the long‐​term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture.

Four cultural factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a stable democratic political system. The first is political trust. The second factor is social tolerance. The third is a widespread recognition of the importance of basic political liberties. The fourth is popular support for gender equality.

Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq may also be a repressive one. It is one thing to adopt formal democracy but quite another to attain stable democracy. A successful democracy cannot be legislated. The White House is placing a very large political wager that the formation of democratic institutions in Iraq can stimulate a democratic political culture.

On the contrary, political culture shapes democracy far more than democracy shapes political culture. Therefore, the American government may need to compromise its democratic ideals with a healthy dose of pragmatism. Democracy is an evolutionary development rather than an overnight phenomenon.

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