Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Democracy in Iraq

John Bedell

Recently the President has joined the chorus of those who think we can create in post-Saddam Iraq a democracy that will serve as a model for a liberal, peaceful Middle East. I don't know quite what to make of this notion.

My first impulse is to dismiss it as an absurd fantasy. Iraq is a made-up country, a grab bag of disparate ethnic groups lumped together for colonial convenience by the British. It has no democratic tradition; in fact, it has the world's oldest tradition of continuous autocracy, going back to the Sumerian kings of 3000 BC. Our recent experience in trying to build democratic states under conditions this unpropitious is uniformly bad. Haiti is sliding back into chaos and thuggery, Bosnia functions at all only because of massive European military and financial assistance, and Kosovo is an ethnic bomb that requires thousands of US troops to keep it from exploding. There is no sign that we will be able to withdraw our troops from the Balkans any time soon, and they may be there for decades. The only part of Iraq where, it seems to me, "nation building" has any chance is in the Kurdish area of the north, but we have sold out the Kurds to the Turks in return for Turkish help in the coming war, promising that the Iraq we build will not be a federal state in which the Kurds could maintain autonomy. To me the scheme looks like a blueprint for disaster, and even if we ever get this new government up and running I foresee a slow slide into terrorism and anarchy, followed by a coup and a new dictatorship.

But then I think wonder if my disbelief in Iraqi democracy is a cruel dismissal of the hopes of several million people. Not so long ago American Cold Warriors justified their support for Latin American dictators by saying that those poor peasants were not suited for democracy; now most of the region is democratic and several Latin democracies are doing very well. Can I really consider myself a friend of freedom if I am willing to abandon the entire Middle East to dictatorship? 

I think that at the moment we have to. Arab democracy may come, but if so it will surely grow out of the efforts of Arabs, and the best thing the United States can do to help is to keep far away. I think that the relationship between the United States and the Arab world is too thoroughly poisoned for us to have any chance of establishing a democratic state in Iraq or any other Muslim country. Too many Arabs hate "the West", too many regard the United States as the Great Satan, for any government we install to have legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The hope in the Bush administration is that if we pass out enough food we will be seen by the Iraqis as "liberators, not conquerors." Well, we ended a terrible famine in Somalia, and look how much local support that got us there. What the shootout in Mogadishu ought to have taught us is that anti-Americanism is such a strong force in much of the world that it can unite even bitter enemies against us, even if those bitter enemies are dependent on us for food. Nor will removing Saddam, as horrible as he is, cause Iraqis to see Americans as liberators, because they already see us as their oppressors; most Arabs blame, not themselves, but "the West" for their economic and political problems. Arabs have long been divided into westerners and Islamists, but the failure of westernizing regimes to deliver either economic success or political freedom has largely discredited the whole idea of making the Middle East more like Europe. As Bernard Lewis recently wrote in the New Yorker, the record of political reform in the Arab world "is one of almost unrelieved failure. Western-style parties and parliaments almost invariably ended in corrupt tyrannies, maintained by repression and indoctrination." Because of the failure of westernization and festering resentment against the west, almost everyone in the Middle East who cares about politics is now an Islamist.

But, says the Bush administration, that record of failure is what we are trying to reverse; if we create a westernizing Arab regime that really works, we will win the people over and discredit both fundamentalism and anti-Americanism. The scheme for remaking Iraq seems to depend on what one might call the utilitarian school of politics: get people food and basic rights and they will be grateful, humble and obedient. If we actually help people, their dislike for us will fade. But this is nonsense: "it is disregarding the experience of this century to suppose that people will give up their passions for their interests." People's politics is determined not just by their material well-being but their pride. The image of an American general ruling Iraq will be such a powerful insult to Iraqis and other Arabs that nothing in the way of substantive accomplishments could possibly undue it. Even if we made Iraq into Switzerland, we would still be hated for it.

It does not matter whether anti-Americanism is just, or fair, or anything else; what matters is that it exists. We have to base our policies on what is real, not what strikes us as fair. Conservatives are fond of telling liberals that there are things the state just can't do. I think that the US simply cannot, no matter what we do, creative a secure Arab democracy.

When I was teaching European history, I always pointed out the connection between totalitarian ideologies and utopian social schemes. From the Bolsheviks to the Khmer Rouge, the worst governments have usually been those with the most grandiose dreams about creating perfectly just societies. After all, if you are going to create a paradise, isn't it worth killing a few thousand people to get there? Or even a few million? I fear that the Bush administration has fallen into a similar trap. They have reassured themselves that it won't matter if we kill a few thousand Iraqis, because the outcome will be a democratic and prosperous Iraq. The Iraqis will be free and rich, and Baghdad will be a shining city on a hill that will call all Arabs to democracy, peace with Israel, and love of America. I think those who can say such things have lost touch with reality and have, in particular, absolutely no idea of how widely and deeply they are hated. They seem to think that Hamas and Al Qaeda are just a handful of fanatics and do not realize that, let alone understand why, they have the support of millions of Muslims. I fear that the blindness of Bush and company to the realities of the Middle East will lead them to make mistake after mistake, and that their gross diplomatic ineptitude at the UN is just a foretaste of the arrogant bungling to come when they try to run Iraq. I am afraid that their fantasy of a new birth of freedom in Baghdad is leading us into disaster.

March 11, 2003  


From the 
Commonplace Book

But, Mousie, thou art
   no thy lane
In proving foresight
   may be vain:
The best laid schemes
   o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought
   but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.

--Robert Burns

It is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will
sacrifice their passions for their interests.

--Raymond Aron


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