From the conflicting news stories, suggesting that different factions leak to different media outlets or different writers, it is almost impossible for a mere citizen to get anything resembling a clear idea of U.S. intentions in postwar Iraq. Is the United States there for the long haul, or will a noticeable presence be a matter of "months not years" as some officials at retired Gen. Jay Garner’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid anonymously told the Washington Post? Based on what officials are telling people it is difficult to know.
This is deeply ironic, of course. The administration boldly told us that its purpose in Iraq was not mere weapons discovery or regime change, but bringing democracy to the country and eventually to the region, that brave promise that seems to make every move toward empire acceptable to most of the American people. If democracy means much of anything, it should have something to do with government serving and doing the will of the people.
Certainly most American spokesmen, right down to gunnery sergeants with a TV camera in their face, is able to declare that what they’re really about is not deciding how this or that mosque or power plant is going to operate, but preserving options so "the Iraqi people" can decide. You can also hear plenty of discussion of the importance of "transparency," one of the hot buzzwords in government circles (and corporate as well) the last few years, meaning that the decision-making process is as open as possible, with as few secrets as possible, so that the people can offer input and do assessments pretty much in real time.
Yet the great power that plans to teach democracy to Iraq doesn’t even make a pretense of asking the American people what they would like to see done now that Saddam’s odious regime is (presumably) gone. And rather than being transparent, the process of deciding is all done behind the scenes, to the ordinary American who is not a policymaker (i.e., tax consumer) it is all very confused and confusing. Rather than asking the people and taking their preferences into account, the government is content to keep the people in the dark about its plans for the future of Iraq, with the only information provided by contradictory leaks.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s a brilliant strategy. This sounds like the version of democracy that a country that has never experienced it or shown much hunger for it not a bad description of most of the Middle East could embrace enthusiastically.
All this discussion about whether democracy can be transplanted into Middle Eastern sand masks a certain confusion about what democracy is and why so many Americans think it is so desirable as to want to export it to other climes. Unfortunately, we may be in danger of focusing on form rather than substance.
Reduced to its essentials, democracy is simply a way by which political leaders are chosen through a vote of some subset of the people rather than by virtue of being born into the "right" family as in a monarchy or aristocracy. (An interesting and provocative case might be made for the apparent preference of democratic masses for family dynasties Bushes, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Tafts et. al. in the United States, Nehru-Gandhis in India, Churchills in Britain, et. al. but that apparent nostalgia for monarchical dynasties is a topic for another bemused column.)
Is it the fact of elections that makes democracy preferable to other political systems? Some would suggest so, but a stronger case can be made that other aspects of a reasonably well-functioning political system (I would be the last to suggest that any political system is perfect or, perhaps, even inherently desirable) are far more important to its being relatively peaceful and productive. Perhaps most important is the existence of a concept resurrected as the Soviet empire was crumbling, that of the civil society.
In his recent book, Conditions of Liberty, English scholar Ernest Gellner (who moved to the Central European University in Prague after the Velvet Revolution) offered this abbreviated definition of a civil society (the book as a whole expands on the ideas and explores nuances): "that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society."
Gellner finds this definition incomplete, in that it could be understood to include as components of civil society various tribal or kin groups that can be quite as oppressive as a central dictatorship. A more complete understanding would view civil society as the network of independent institutions and habits of thought that encourage individual independence and the expectation that people should be treated fairly because they are people, not because they have connections or are part of some group, ruling or otherwise.
A civil society helps a democracy to function, to take just one example, by encouraging people to accept the results of an election peacefully on the expectation that there is at least some hope that the victors will not persecute the losers too overtly or brutally and there is at least a chance for the minority to become the majority some day and succeed at the next election. The test for the United States came in 1800, when one political party actually displaced what had been the ruling party and promised to carry out policies the losing Federalists (actually centralists, but political actors are always expropriating attractive terms) considered disastrous. Had the Federalists not accepted the results peacefully U.S. history might have been radically different.
In practice, while Jefferson’s Republicans did do several things differently, they didn’t challenge the Hamiltonian economic system the previous administration had put in place and that was the chief source of contention during Federalist rule. So perhaps part of the democratic bargain is the implicit understanding that a new ruling majority will not change things too drastically, that it will nibble around the edges of policy differences rather than try to effect a revolution after one successful election.
American political parties have evolved into coalitions of interests rather than ideological parties with real transformative programs. To most residents this blurring of distinctions is probably vaguely reassuring, although to people who really do want transformative change and who sincerely believe that the changes they want are constructive and progressive, it can be frustrating. A pure "majority rules" system wouldn’t work like this. A majority would be able to do whatever it wanted without worrying about compromise, but that would be an extremely unstable system.
Taken as a pure abstract concept, democracy as a way of organizing a government doesn’t necessarily imply respect for the rights either of a minority or of the individual. It very well could resemble the whimsical definition a pack of wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. For a democracy not to be destabilizing and exploitative, it needs to be built on a foundation of respect for individual rights and minorities, an understanding that there are certain things a majority simply cannot do. The U.S. Bill of Rights is a limit on pure democracy rather than an inherently democratic outgrowth; it is a statement that no matter how large the majority, there are certain things a government put in place by that majority simply cannot and must not do.
A strong case can be made, then, that it is not democracy per se that so many Americans find desirable, but the limitations on pure democracy that were put in place by the Constitution (building on a widespread understanding of the proper role of government at the time) and by customs and precedents that have evolved over our subsequent history. When they speak lazily about "democracy," most Americans probably mean to include all or most of these concepts like rule of law and respect for the rights of minorities within the idea of democracy. While such concepts are probably essential to keeping democracies from being too oppressive, however, they are not logically part-and-parcel of democracy as a system of governance.
What is desirable about what Americans still have some shreds left of, is not so much democracy as liberty. Rhetorically the idea of liberty is still powerful enough that our political leaders feel the need to speak of freedom and liberty even as they systematically undermine it by (for example) leading the country into unnecessary wars. But it is more useful for the ruling elites to have the concepts of liberty, democracy and freedom all muddled together in the minds of most Americans as something of an unexamined religion that leads most Americans to respect duly constituted authority so long as it claims to be acting in defense of liberty.
THE ROAD NOT NOTICED
Actually, there is something in the American experience, especially as expressed in the founding documents, that might well be useful to a country like Iraq. Unfortunately, most of our leaders, and especially the kind of civil-service and military bureaucrats we’re likely to send over to assist the proconsul in building the new Iraq, give only lip service at best to the concept; at worst (and most often) they despise the notion with every fiber of their being and seek to replace it with institutions that have a bit more power, thank you.
I refer, of course, to the idea of a decentralized system with an extremely weak central government that has not much power beyond appointing diplomats to travel to useless conferences and perhaps collecting a tariff or two. In a country like Iraq, with its different ethnic groups that were administered as three separate provinces under the old Ottoman Empire, such a system if it could be guaranteed that the central government would remain so weak as not to be a threat to a minority just might be tolerable.
But the kind of national and international bureaucrats who will be in charge of installing "democracy" in Iraq are almost all of them ideological apostles (without knowing they are ideologues; they think everybody thinks the way they do and such thought patterns are simply reflective of reality) of the modern heresy of the powerful centralized state just and benevolent, of course, but indubitably powerful. There is little chance they will erect institutions that limit the power of the central government so radically, effectively and persuasively that Sunnis or Kurds will not feel threatened if the Shiites are in nominal control, because they won’t have enough power to oppress. Quite frankly, they don’t believe in such "weak" systems. They believe in powerful central states that manage pretty much every aspect of life in a geographical region.
Installing such a state in Iraq, with its ethnic fractiousness, is an invitation to conflict. Without the concept of a civil society informed by the idea that peoples’ individuality is more important than their ethnic group, each ethnic group is likely to want to control the central government if not to oppress the other groups, then to serve as a defense against the possible urge to oppress by the others. Insofar as the underlying culture encourages people to think in terms of tribal or ethnic loyalties rather than as an individual to whom ethnicity is simply an interesting variation which seems likely to be the case in the Middle East for a long time to come a democracy that yields a powerful central state is likely to invite either fractiousness or a dictatorship. A dictatorship seems more likely.
Offering these observations does not suggest that I hope the American administrators adopt an ideology of radically limited and decentralized government and try to impose it on Iraq. Aside from the low likelihood factor, given the kinds of people who go into nation-building as a vocation, it would still be a system imposed by an outside force. Whether wise and constructive or foolish and flawed, it would still be resented and eventually subverted by the Iraqis.
What I would prefer would be for Americans to do the minimum needed in terms of mopping up and get out as quickly as possible. As individuals Americans certainly have the right to hope that Iraq and the rest of the Middle East eventually move toward more enlightened modes of governance and as individuals even the right to volunteer to move there or to serve as consultants to help move those societies in whatever direction they deem constructive. But that doesn’t give our government the right to impose what we deem to be constructive values at the point of a gun. In fact, imposing democratic or liberty-oriented values at the point of a gun comes pretty close to being a contradiction in terms but it’s a contradiction too many Americans, for a host of complex reasons, are vulnerable to embracing.