Will America commit to democracy in Iraq?

October 27, 2002|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON -- On paper, the exercise in democracy was impressive.

Fifty-seven Bosnian political parties fielded more than 7,500 candidates for local and federal offices, including the three-person rotating presidency.

If there was a somewhat jarring note in the campaign, it was supplied by Bosnia's foreign patrons who lobbied against the three militant ethnic parties that originally were responsible for the 1992-95 civil war.

Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Bosnians to support political parties committed to building a multi-ethnic democracy. The vote for the militant nationalist parties, he warned in a televised address, would take Bosnia back "down the dark and dangerous road to ethnic division, economic stagnation and international isolation."

It came as something of a shock when the tribal parties -- Muslim, Serb, Croat -- won virtually all the races. After billions of dollars and thousands of aid workers trying to "make Bosnia work," the former Yugoslav province is back to square one. Its ethnic divisions remain frozen solid.

The facts on the ground -- the three religions, three ethnic armies, three secret intelligence services, three mini-states unable to agree on most issues ranging from border controls to the design of the Bosnian flag -- reveal a Potemkin country that lives off foreign donations and is run by a colonial governor, Paddy Ashdown of Britain. He has the authority to rule by decree and remove politicians from office.

What next? Even as he was trying to put a positive spin on the whole thing, Mr. Ashdown sounded pessimistic, conceding that "time is not on Bosnia's side."

We should consider the depressing story of Bosnia's nation-building -- and the one under way in Afghanistan -- now that the United States stands on the brink of extending its war on terrorism to Iraq.

In a recent speech in Cincinnati, where he set out his reasons for a regime change in Baghdad, President Bush explicitly pledged to help the Iraqi people to "rebuild their economy and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq."

With years of hindsight, Bosnia underscores the unique military prowess and glaring political weaknesses of the world's only superpower.

The same can be said of then-President Bill Clinton's expulsion of the Haitian junta in 1994, or later interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. While the U.S. military knows how to fight wars, U.S. political leaders underestimate the need for the grinding political work that is required to secure ultimate victory. How serious were we about helping build a democratic government in Haiti or in Bosnia?

The preponderance of American power is such that the fighting in Iraq should be brief, the casualties few and the risks limited. Saddam Hussein's army may not even fight, some experts suggest, and the rest of the population would cheer liberation from the tyrant. But that's where the hard part begins. What exactly are the institutions of liberty? Who is going to keep a unified Iraq?

Like Bosnia, Iraq is a multi-ethnic state created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. It has been ruled by Sunni Muslims, who account for about 20 percent of the population. They have mercilessly persecuted the other two groups: the Kurds in the north, who account for about 20 percent of the population and who are yearning for a state of their own, and the Shiites in the south (60 percent), who are receiving support from their co-religionists in Iran. This offers no immediate options except a Sunni-led dictatorship, according to some studies.

The Bush administration recently has begun disbursing funds and expert advice for the post-Hussein Iraq. About $400,000 was allocated to an Iraqi Jurists Association to draft legislation and legal decrees so that they will be readily available to a new government in Baghdad. The State Department is hiring Iraqi exiles for a Future of Iraq Project, backed by $5 million in federal funds, trying to plot the ways for a humane government to follow the departure of the tyrant in Baghdad.

But such projects are public relations ploys intended to create an illusion that it is possible to unify the three Iraqi communities into a viable democratic state on the cheap.

One thing that we have learned from Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan is that all three efforts are conducted at the lowest levels of financial and political expenditures. This is one reason that all are foundering. It is aggravated by the discrepancy between the public justifications offered for the policy of nation-building and the real motives that drove it.

Mr. Clinton was reluctant to use power in Bosnia and did so under enormous public pressure.

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