Can Iraq Be Democratic?

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Is Iraq capable of moving smoothly from dictatorshipto democracy? This paper contendsthat the White House will be gravely disappointedwith the result of its effort to establish a stableliberal democracy in Iraq, or any other nationhome 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, inmost Muslim countries a high level of popularsupport exists for the concept of democracy. Inpractice, popular support for democracy is a necessary,but is not a sufficient, condition fordemocratic institutions to emerge. Other factorsare necessary. Hypothetical support for representativegovernment, absent tangible support forliberal political norms and values and withoutthe foundation of a pluralistic civil society, providesneither sufficient stimulus nor stayingpower for democracy to take root. That realitywas borne out over the past generation innumerous countries where authoritarian regimeswere displaced by newly democraticregimes but democratization failed because ofshallow foundations.

The building blocks of a modern democraticpolitical culture are not institutional in nature.The building blocks are not elections, parties,and legislatures. Rather, the building blocks ofdemocracy are supportive cultural values—thelong-term survival of democratic institutionsrequires a particular political culture.

Four cultural factors play an essential, collectiverole in stimulating and reinforcing a stabledemocratic political system. The first is politicaltrust. The second factor is social tolerance. Thethird is a widespread recognition of the importanceof basic political liberties. The fourth ispopular support for gender equality.

Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq mayalso be a repressive one. It is one thing to adoptformal democracy but quite another to attainstable democracy. A successful democracy cannotbe legislated. The White House is placing avery large political wager that the formation ofdemocratic institutions in Iraq can stimulate ademocratic political culture.

On the contrary, political culture shapesdemocracy far more than democracy shapespolitical culture. Therefore, the American governmentmay need to compromise its democraticideals with a healthy dose of pragmatism.Democracy is an evolutionary developmentrather than an overnight phenomenon.

Patrick Basham

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow with the Center for Representative Government of the Cato Institute.