Hard Lessons in Democracy

Well, we’re certainly teaching the Iraqi people about democracy – and as it is actually practiced, which is not necessarily the way those whose exposure has been limited to civics textbooks might expect it to be practiced. It features intrigue, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and positioning among forces who want to win out at some point, careerism and concern more for the way things can be made to appear on the surface than on how they are actually working.

It’s a messy and sometimes virtually incomprehensible business, this democracy, with hidden inner workings that would make the convoluted struggles in a Byzantine court seem the very model of transparency. The Iraqis are seeing proconsuls and subalterns replaced almost weekly. Former Gen. Jay Garner seems to be on his way out earlier than originally planned, according to the Washington Post, rather than staying on as new civilian proconsul L. Paul Bremer’s Number Two, although Garner spokesmen denied it and Bremer gave Garner the kind of vote of confidence that in college and professional sports can be the kiss of death for a coach when uttered by an owner or athletic director.

Meantime Margaret Tutwiler, who was Secretary of State James Baker’s mouthpiece for a while in the Bush I administration, is said to be on the way out. Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen, who has been in charge of reconstruction for the Baghdad region, has been given her walking papers, along with three other top Garner assistants. None of this shuffling around, of course, has the slightest relationship to what the Iraqi people might prefer, if they were in any position to know about the behind-the-scenes power relationships or to express their opinion in a way that might actually influence policy. They are learning that those who say they want to introduce democracy to Iraq seem not to have their act together very well, but democracy is a form to be imposed by people chosen thousands of miles away rather than the substance of informed popular consent.


This might be a good thing. H.L. Mencken used to define democracy as the theory that the people ought to get what they want and to get it good and hard. If the Iraqi people come to see democracy in this more cynical – or realistic – light, it might cause some rethinking about the virtues and pitfalls of democracy. That might cause some Iraqis to think creatively about forms of governance that might actually work in their society and that can be sold to the imperial overseers as an authentic Iraqi-style "democracy." That might just be the best hope for a reasonably decent outcome achieved in spite of what appears to be imperial improvisational bumbling (though it may be more planned than it looks to an outside observer).

It is hard for an outsider to have a realistic idea about whether some of the traditional structures of governance and impulses toward stability (at least in the sense of settling disagreements with minimal bloodshed) have survived Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. It is likely that some have. Saddam’s regime was in some ways a variation on traditional tribal or kinship-based forms of governance that have prevailed with variations in the region for centuries at least.

Most of the most trusted members of the regime were from the Tikrit region and at least distant relations to Saddam and his top henchmen. Saddam and his people achieved power in part by killing and brutally repressing potential dissidents, but it is also likely that the regime’s power rested in part on coming to accommodations with other tribal groups. As we have seen, there seems to have been a partly hidden Shiite power structure ready to jump to the fore when it appears the situation is fluid and power is up for grabs.

There just might be indigenous sources of legitimate authority that could stabilize the situation if given a chance. Of course there is always the danger that they might be more interested in seizing big chunks of power for themselves than in setting up structures that would give the people themselves control, or respect any rights on the part of other contending factions.


Of course, continued rioting, active complaining, looting and increases in ordinary crime suggest some serious breakdowns among the forces of order, breakdowns the U.S. military as much as admits it is in no position to understand very well, let alone control. So far the U.S. military hasn’t achieved the advertised achievement of the Mussolini regime in Italy: getting the trains to run on time. They haven’t got the electricity turned on or the oilfields pumping. (Some historians claim Mussolini didn’t actually achieve real efficiency beyond some Potemkin-like showplaces for foreigners, but that’s a subject for another day.) Hardly anybody on the ground speaks Arabic, so communications are a constant problem.

L. Paul Bremer’s purported expertise – beyond being a Kissinger protégé who seems also well-connected among neo-conservatives and in the Defense Dept. – is in terrorism as a phenomenon rather than in Iraq as a forced polity or even in the Middle East as a region. It will be fascinating to see if he even knows how to procure or get advice from people who might be in a position to understand Iraqi society and begin to identify potential sources of authority perceived as legitimate by important sectors of Iraqi society.

It seems even more unlikely that Mr. Bremer has much understanding of or sympathy for the model of a decentralized polity in which the power of a central governing entity in a multicultural, multi-ethnic is limited enough that it is neither a serious threat to established tribal or civic organizations or an essential prize for a power freak – something like America’s early federalist system or the essentially central-state-less system that has evolved in Somalia since the "international community" lost interest in the place. He might surprise us, but it seems likely that Mr. Bremer’s idea of a stable, orderly society is one with a strong central government able to impose its will on recalcitrant elements in society.


The fluid and unstable nature of governance from the top by the military occupiers in Iraq also seems to reflect shifting power relationships back in Washington, DC, the Imperial Capital. Was the appointment of Bremer, a career State Department guy before becoming managing director at Kissinger and Associates, a sign that Colin Powell had won a round in the eternal power struggle between State and Defense? Is pushing Gen. Garner aside a sign of dissatisfaction with what he has or hasn’t done or does it just mean the administration wants him out of the way before some semi-scandalous or apparently scandalous relationship of the kind a retired general doing international consulting work is likely to have in his background comes to light? Is Bremer a symbol of a resurgence of the old Kissingerian disciples of realpolitik over Wilsonian nation-builders, or a symbol of a skillful operator accommodating himself to the new powers that be of the moment?

There’s plenty of speculation about such matters but precious little hard information. I’m sure there are people closer to things in the Imperial City who have better insights than I do, and I have calls in to some who might know. But the ways of those who struggle daily in the labyrinths of power are obscure to us mere mortals (and to people who have better things to do with their lives than to chart the ebb and flow of power among Washington interest groups.

It is possible for Business Week to ask "Was the victory over Saddam proof that the neoconservatives have arrived? Or was the Iraq war the high point of a confrontational philosophy that may be too divisive for a President who has an economy to fix and a reelection to win? Or neither?" In what might reflect wishful thinking Business Week makes a lukewarm case for the high-point theory, but it doesn’t strike me as definitive. The neocons still have plenty of influence, although an apparent division as to whether Syrian or Iran ought to be the next target of the tender mercies of the building-by-bombing process might vitiate their influence.


I talked to Karen Kwiatkowski, a recently retired USAF lieutenant colonel who spent her last four-plus years in the Pentagon and has been writing pieces for LewRockwell.com that reflect a suitably freedom-loving skepticism about the military and other government agencies. She told me her best guess is that the displacement of Gen. Garner is part of a general clean-up of the Iraqi team prior to the American reelection campaign in 2004.

The White House wants Iraq to continue to look like a success to American voters, and it especially doesn’t want people with the kind of vulnerabilities that could be exploited in an election campaign around, beginning about now. Ms. Kwiatkowski thinks the moves in Iraq, in short, are about GW hanging onto power rather than much of a reflection of differing approaches to the problem of how to make Iraq stable, democratic and an asset rather than a threat in the region. "Those people haven’t planned beyond the war," she thinks. Both the military and the neoconservatives know how to and are most interested in destroying things and shaking up old patterns than in building stable societies, let alone free ones.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).