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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | April 15, 2020
Iraq's Coming Democracy
After tyranny, democracy is Iraq's only political choice. Achieving it will be difficult. But, anything else would be a disaster.
By Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack

Table of Contents

It would be foolish to claim that building democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq will be easy or certain -- let alone that doing so might solve all of the problems of the Middle East overnight. Iraq has serious problems that will make the creation of a functional democracy difficult and lengthy. The country that Saddam Hussein has ruled for more than 30 years has little experience with democracy, deep ethnic and religious fissures, and a population traumatized by totalitarian misrule. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that it would be impossible to create a democracy in Iraq. The barriers are high, but not insurmountable.

Establishing a democracy in Iraq after Saddam Hussein falls offers the best prospect to solve the problems that have beset Iraq over the years. Moreover, failure to establish democracy in Iraq would be a disaster. Civil war, massive refugee flows, and even renewed interstate fighting would resurface and plague this long-cursed region. A failure of democracy to take root would add credence to charges that the United States cares little for Muslims and Arabs -- a charge that now involves security, as well as moral, considerations.

No other choice. Perhaps the best reason to invest in building democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq is that the alternatives are far worse. The conditions in Iraq today do not lend themselves to any other form of government -- except the rise of another ruthless, mass-murdering dictator.

Some have suggested the creation of an oligarchy of tribal, religious, merchant, and other leaders similar to the interim Karzai regime in Afghanistan. But such a government would be difficult to establish in Iraq because the country lacks potential oligarchs. Saddam ruthlessly eliminated any potential rivals. Moreover, even if an oligarchy could be established, it would not represent the three-quarters of the Iraqi people who are educated, secular, sophisticated city-dwellers. They do not want to be ruled by a cabal of musty sheiks, out-of-touch mullahs, and army generals who have brought them so much misery over the past 80 years. Such an oligarchy would have no legitimacy among the vast majority of the people, creating tremendous instability.

Instead, the immediate result of imposing an oligarchy would be a form of "warlordism," as each of the power centers moved to consolidate control over its home territory. Inevitably, the warlords would fall to infighting -- as they are beginning to do in Afghanistan -- risking a slide into chaos.

Another option would be simply to install a new dictator to take Saddam's place, hopefully leaving Iraq similar to Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. This so-called "hard-headed" approach also has little to recommend it. It is unlikely that a new Iraqi dictator could take or hold power without heavy-handed and sustained American interference (or worse, support from Iran or another neighbor hostile to U.S. interests).

The most likely outcome of this approach would be a return to the kind of revolving-door dictatorships Iraq experienced in the 1950s and 1960s, when one weak autocrat was overthrown by the next, who then was too weak to hang on. Indeed, the only way another dictator could hold on to power would be to become a new Saddam himself -- replicating his predecessor's bloodthirsty tyranny, and likely resurrecting many of the other problems of Saddam's reign, such as pursuing weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorism, and attacking Iraq's neighbors.

Even if the worst did not come to pass, the best that this option offers is to saddle another important Middle Eastern state with all of the same problems as Egypt, Syria, and other authoritarian Middle Eastern states. This is not an outcome the United States should be striving for.

Difficult, but not impossible. Iraqi history is one of strife, chaos, war, and near-genocide: hardly ideal ground for democracy. But the fact that Iraq has never had a functional democracy does not doom it for eternity not to have one. Many countries that had little or no democratic tradition have developed in the past 20 years into functioning democracies. Even though they have sometimes had shaky beginnings, democracy has broken out in the most unlikely of places. This has happened even in societies that doubters insisted for years could never become democratic. Remember all the talk about how East Asia's "Confucian societies" were culturally bred to conformity and autocracy and could never become democratic? Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and others have already proven that to be a canard.

The criticism that Iraq cannot become democratic is further belied by the fact that in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, democracy has already enjoyed some noteworthy successes. Despite infighting, economic dislocation, and other problems, the Kurds have established a reasonably stable form of power-sharing.

Iraq also has a number of advantages that would contribute to a successful effort to build democracy. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, it had perhaps the best educated, most secular, and most progressive population of all the Arab states. Although Iraq's middle class has been economically devastated over the past 12 years, it still exists as a social and cultural force -- and it is the political impact of the "bourgeoisie" that is most important for democracy, not its economic circumstances.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Iraqi democracy will be the potential for one group to use the electoral process to dominate the country and exclude others. Iraq's Shi'ah community, which comprises more than 60 percent of the population, might use free elections to transform its current exclusion from power into one of total dominance. Knowing this, Sunni Arabs, and perhaps the Kurds, might oppose a majority-rule-based system. The key for an Iraqi democracy will be whether it can fashion a system that addresses the potential problem of a "tyranny of the majority."

There is no reason it can't. A democratic system with some similarities to the American model could probably do the trick. Iraq's system must ensure minority rights, limit the ability of the central government to impose its will on its citizens, include checks and balances to ensure that control of one part of the government does not translate into a dictatorship of the majority, and encourage compromise and cooperation among well-defined interest groups.

A key difference from a U.S.-style system would be to recognize the reality of Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions. These differences must be accommodated first, even as the new system works to overcome them over time. To reduce the role of ethnicity and sect and encourage cooperation across ethnic and religious lines, Iraq could employ a system of representation determined by geography. Although there is a fair degree of communal correlation with geography (the Kurds live in the north, the Shi'ah in the south, and the Sunnis in the west), there are also important regions of overlap. In Baghdad and in large chunks of central Iraq, Sunni, Shi'ah, and Kurds are well mixed. By insisting on geographical representation, Iraqi legislators elected from these mixed districts would have an incentive to find compromise solutions to national problems -- to please their mixed constituencies.

The U.S. role. If democracy is to succeed, the international community -- particularly the United States -- must play midwife to the nascent Iraqi state. Even if all goes well, it will take years for the new government to gain the trust of the Iraqi people, demonstrate its ability to maintain order and broker compromises, and allow the institutions of a democratic society to mature.

Typically, the greatest problem for new democracies is the fear of civil strife, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Saddam has nurtured communal hatred for more than 30 years, minor provocations could spiral out of control in the early days after his fall and spark internecine conflicts. Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, Turkey, and Syria, also have a history of meddling, and might seize on any perceived power vacuum to intervene in Iraq to advance their own interests.

The first and most important role for the United States is to ensure the safety of the Iraqi people by establishing a security presence throughout the country. At first, this will likely require a presence of as many as 200,000 troops. But within one or two years, that contingent should be replaced by a multinational force of 50,000 to 100,000 troops, including American and foreign forces, preferably acting under a U.N. mandate. The U.S.-led peacekeeping force should ensure that no group or individual can use violence for political advantage. It is a role for which U.S. and European troops are eminently well-qualified, and which they have played successfully in the past.

We should not delude ourselves: Building democracy in Iraq will be difficult and expensive and will take years. But there is no reason that Iraq cannot join the ranks of democratic nations if the United States is willing to take on the burdens of helping Iraq build a democracy, and to create a coalition of other nations willing to help. Moreover, we must remember that our goal in Iraq is not merely to rid the world of the menace of Saddam Hussein, but to bring stability to the Gulf region. If the United States is not committed to building good government in Iraq, we are liable to be simply substituting one set of problems for another. Democracy in Iraq is not just a nice bonus of a war, it is a necessary component of victory.

Daniel L. Byman is a nonresident senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and an assistant professor at the Georgetown University Security Studies program. Kenneth M. Pollack is director of research at the Saban Center, the former director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, and the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. A longer version of this piece will appear in the Summer 2003 issue of The Washington Quarterly.

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