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Don't rush Iraq to democracy

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 24, 2003

It's gospel for many that the most important ingredient for Iraq's long-term survival is the introduction of democracy, and preferably as soon as possible. With that apparently in mind, the United States has agreed to a timetable crafted by Iraq's interim Governing Council that a transitional sovereign government would be in place by June 2005 with an elected government to follow by the end of that year. As Michael Ledeen suggested in an essay last week, introducing democracy into the Middle East is simply a matter of holding elections.

"I do not believe that Arab or Muslim DNA is mysteriously lacking a democracy chromosome or a freedom gene. I don't think that democratic revolution is all that difficult, or that it requires some key sociological component such as a middle class or a historical event such as a Reformation or an industrial revolution ... I believe that the advantages of a free society are pretty clear to almost the entire population of the planet, that most people would choose to be free if they were free to choose, and that, thereafter, some would do well and others not, just as in the past. "

It's arrogant to argue that Arabs and Muslims are incapable of living in free societies. For too long people have peddled the theory that the only governments that work in the Middle East -- at least in terms of longevity -- are those that are authoritarian in nature. That said Ledeen is very wrong to argue that merely waving the wand of democracy is the solution to problems in the Middle East. The reason why "some do well and others not" is precisely because of what he believes isn't important: institutions necessary to support democracy.

As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a speech this past summer, people tend to look at the Western model of government as a single tradition. It is actually composed of two separate strains of thought: democracy and constitutional liberalism. Democracy, Zakaria argues, is merely a process -- a form of government that allows a citizenry to pick who will govern them in free and fair elections. Essentially, democracy allows the public to participate in government.

More important than democracy, however, is constitutional liberalism. The goal with this tradition is the protection of individual liberties. "Historically," said Zakaria, "it has required the development of bulwarks that protect individual rights and liberties from arbitrary power -- from state, church or society."

We don't have to look very far to see what democracy without the constraints of constitutional liberalism provides. Although most people will reach for the example of Adolph Hitler's election in 1933, more recent examples include Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia. In Africa, nearly every nation has chosen a government through election and we can hardly call that continent a hotbed of liberty. These nations prove that without strong constraints on government, democracies are rarely successful. These constraints include a strong constitution, an independent middle class and property rights.

Iraq also poses a number of problems for a quick move to democracy. Its status as an oil rich nation means that any future government need not rely on its citizenry as a check to its power. If a government doesn't need to tax its people, it also doesn't need to listen to them. Like Yugoslavia, Iraq is also divided along religious and ethnic fault lines that are easier to exploit then it is for a liberal democrat to explain a complicated platform. The quickest path to power is often divide-and-conquer, not consensus building. Finally, the lack of a long democratic tradition means the home of dissent is not a parliament, but organizations outside the political process. Dissent in Iran before the 1979 revolution was concentrated in the mosques and easy prey for extremists.

Ledeen and his peers are wrong, certain institutions are necessary if democracy is to be successful in Iraq and the Middle East. The United States, Britain and the Governing Council should instead follow the path of nations like Taiwan and Thailand. Introduce and solidify the rule of law and economic liberty, then unleash democracy. Pretending that these institutions will magically appear will only doom Iraqis to the mistakes of the past. During the past half century the Middle East has seen several modern, secular and westernized states that collapsed into tyranny. They proved that without a strong foundation, democracy can't be a home to anyone.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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