Mirage in the Desert: The Prospects for Iraqi Democracy

As the October 15 deadline for ratification of the proposed Iraqi constitution approaches, it is a good time to recall why the establishment of an Iraqi democracy is – and was from the beginning – a harebrained idea.

No doubt we’ll soon be hearing a lot of optimistic reports about the number of Iraqis who go to the polls and how excited everyone is about democracy. If the constitution is ratified, the administration will claim the event as a major milestone towards its announced goal of a democratic Iraq. This claim will be nonsense, and the American public should understand why before getting swept up in another wave of purple-finger euphoria.

When Democracy Succeeds

A good place to start is to contrast Iraq today with historic democratic success stories: colonial America, postwar West Germany, and Japan.

America. When the American constitution was written and ratified, the thirteen states each had a well established government, and those governments were all fundamentally similar. Citizens of the states were in broad consensus about the nature of government and the proper relationship between their state government and its citizens. Those state governments had been sending representatives to a continental congress for many years. That congress had managed to declare independence from Great Britain, negotiate an alliance with France, and win a war of independence. After the revolution, a weak national government had been established under the Articles of Confederation.

The task of the Constitutional Convention was to strengthen this union, not create it from scratch. The common model of the state governments was to be extended to a federal government. Citizens of the states would be citizens of the nation, and have much the same relationship to the federal government as they already had to their state governments. In the short term, day-to-day life changed very little.

On one issue, the state governments did not share a consensus: slavery. That issue was never resolved democratically. Ultimately, it led to a civil war.

Germany. West Germany was formed in 1949 out of the American, British, and French occupation zones that were established after World War II. The Russian occupation zone became East Germany.

Germans at that time had a strong sense of national identity and culture. Germany had been a nation for about 80 years – a nation that emerged out of a sense of cultural identity that had existed for an even longer time. Germans shared the experience of being united in the Weimar Republic after World War I, so the fundamental ideas and practices of democracy were well known. Weimar had failed with disasterous consequences, and the contemporary possibility of Russian invasion was very real, so German citizens and leaders were well motivated to make their new republic work.

Germany’s once-powerful economy had been all but destroyed by the war and was in the process of being rebuilt. Perversely, this was a boon to the new republic: There was little for the new leaders to steal, but much to be gained if they could shepherd an economic recovery.

Japan. Japan was the first clearly successful example of a democracy established on top of a non-Western culture. (India might dispute this claim, which hangs on the question of when the success of Indian democracy became clear.) Consequently, Japan gives hope to those who imagine democracy someday taking hold in Africa and the Middle East.

Japan has perhaps the strongest sense of national identity in the world. As an island nation, its borders have been well established for centuries. It has ethnic unity and a common cultural identity. Its unity as a nation (symbolized by the line of imperial succession) goes back into mythological times.

Postwar Japan could look back to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, a previous era when Japan had made a national decision to remodel itself to compete in a Western-dominated world. The adoption of democracy could be interpreted as a continuation of that internal process, rather than just the imposition of a conquering power.

Even moreso than Germany, Japan was economically prostrate at the end of World War II. There was nothing to steal, and every motivation to unite the nation around economic progress.

The Iraq Situation

By contrast, Iraq’s national identity has always been suspect. The country was created by the British after World War I, and its borders are arbitrary. From the beginning, Iraq has been a collection of rival ethnic and religious groups: Shia, Sunni, and Kurd are the three largest identifications, but there are smaller groups like Turkmen and Christians. None have reason to trust the others. The British gave sovereignty to the Sunni minority, which held control of the government until the recent American invasion – first under a king, and then under a Stalinist-style dictatorship.

Iraq has no history of democracy. The subtle balance of individual rights and majority rule is not part of the experience of most Iraqis. Limited government, checks and balances – all these ideas are new to Iraq. The majority Shia have little experience in government of any kind.

The usual answer to how Sunni, Shia, and Kurd will cooperate in a democratic Iraq is “federalism”. The vision is of individual provinces dominated by one group or another – Kurds in the north, Shia in the south, and Sunni in the west – working out their differences in a national federation. But unlike the American example, no democratic provincial governments exist either. The Iraqi constitution attempts to create a federation out of provincial governments that are themselves being newly created.

The vast oil wealth of Iraq is often presented as an advantage to the proposed republic, but in fact it presents a huge problem. Officials of the new government – whoever they are and however they’re chosen – will manage billions of easily stolen dollars. The amount of American money that has already vanished in Iraq – some estimates run as high as $8 billion – does not inspire confidence.

Many of the Iraqi leaders lived in exile before Saddam’s overthrow, or have other natural affinities with foreign countries. Many Shiite leaders have connections with Shiite Iran, and many Sunnis with Jordan or Syria. The prospect of stealing a lot of money and then escaping to a friendly foreign country will occur to almost every government official at one time or another. (By contrast, even if the early Japanese democratic leaders had found something to steal, they had nowhere to escape to: Leaving Japan permanently was, for the overwhelming majority of Japanese, unthinkable.)

Even honest officials of the new Iraq will jockey for control of the oil. In fact, they already do: The most contentious issue in the new constitution is not religion, but whether the federation will be weak or strong. The proposed constitution, which was written by Shia and Kurdish representatives and is opposed by Sunni leaders, opens the possibility of a Kurdish autonomous region controlling the northern oil fields and a Shiite autonomous region controlling the southern oil fields, leaving the Sunnis with the comparatively worthless central desert.

What Democracy Entails

A system that balances individual rights with majority rule only works in the presence of a broad consensus. This is not widely understood in America because our national consensus goes without saying; it is as invisible to us as water is to fish.

Our apparently polarized national debate revolves around comparatively trivial details of a social contract that is widely supported. Almost every American agrees, for example, that individuals can earn income and own property, and that government can tax both – we just argue about the tax rates. We almost all agree that the poor should not be left to starve – but we disagree about how much aid to give them and how to deliver it. We agree that the majority can write laws, but that the laws must respect individual rights; we even agree about the names of those individual rights – we just disagree about their exact boundaries.

Even more than the existence of an underlying consensus, democracy relies on a near-universal faith in the consensus. Why is this important? Consider, for example, the number of American military officers who (at least on paper) control a force large enough to take over the government. It’s probably huge: at least dozens and maybe hundreds. You just need enough men to arrest the President, the Vice President, the cabinet, major leaders in Congress, and (just for good measure) the justices of the Supreme Court. You’d also need to seize a TV station and issue a decree proclaiming yourself dictator. It wouldn’t take that many soldiers.

I waste almost no time worrying about this possibility, and I suspect you don’t either. Why? Because it wouldn’t work. The vast majority of soldiers, like the vast majority of Americans everywhere, are loyal to the underlying social contract of America. If General So-and-so sends Major Whatzisname to occupy the White House and arrest the President, chances are excellent that he won’t. Somebody in the chain of succession would escape, and the country would rally around him or her. The coup would fail in days, if not immediately.

Translate that scenario to Iraq after the last American soldier leaves. What exactly is Major Whatzisname so loyal to that he would abandon the prospect of a high position in General So-and-so’s administration and the chance to steal a few billion dollars of oil money? Why would General So-and-so fear the possibility of the public rallying around some minor cabinet officer?

Even more likely is the possibility that the first Iraqi president will just not bother to hold another election, or that he will only hold an election under rules that make his loss impossible (as Egypt’s President Mubarak recently did with great Bush administration fanfare). That was the fate of many of the African “democracies” that were created after the British and French pulled out of their colonies. The new president will control the oil and the military. Why will anybody stand up to him? A constitution is, as the Africans realized, just a piece of paper unless a social consensus backs it up.

The actions of elected Iraqi leaders so far do not inspire any more faith than Iraq’s corrupt bureaucrats do. The process leading to the Iraqi constitution has been marred by a pervasive tendency to ignore the letter of the law when it became inconvenient. The law authorizing the current government contained no provision for extending the deadline for writing the constitution, and yet the Parliament did extend the deadline once, and it was extended again by the government’s leaders without a vote of Parliament. And while Parliament appointed the committee that wrote the constitution, no parliamentary vote on the final text was ever held. A strong argument can be made that the new constitution will be illegal even if it is ratified in October.


One can argue that many aspects of the Iraq debacle were either contingent or unforeseeable: Saddam once possessed WMDs and could have stashed a few somewhere; a larger invasion force with a better plan might have established order and prevented the rise of an insurgency; a less arrogant administration might have put together a genuinely international coalition with more legitimacy, and so on.

But the prospect of Iraqi democracy was always far-fetched. From the beginning it was clear that Iraq bore no resemblance to countries where democracy has succeeded. It still bears no resemblance. The Iraqi constitution may or may not be ratified, and the charade of democratic progress may or may not continue indefinitely into the future. But it changes nothing. The barriers between Iraq and democracy are as high as ever

These barriers have nothing to do with Islam or any hypothetical deficiency of Arab culture. They have everything to do with lack of national identity, lack of democratic experience, lack of an internal democratic movement, absence of legitimate local governments, lack of an authentically national culture, ethnic divisions with generations of scores to settle, the temptations of easily stolen wealth, and overall lack of mutual trust.

Under the best of circumstances, democracy has a hard time getting started. We need to remember that England (Cromwell), France (Napoleon), and Germany (Hitler) all failed in their first attempts.

Is an Iraqi democracy absolutely impossible? No. But it faces such disadvantages that its success would be unprecedented in the history of the world. That our exit strategy from this war depends on such an unlikely series of events is a most unsettling realization.

Doug Muder

26 September 2005

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