One Iraqi, one vote

March 23, 2003

CAN A COUNTRY be marched at gunpoint into democracy?

Sure. There were a pair of brilliant examples 50 years ago, in Japan and Germany. But can Iraq follow their example?

The Bush administration wants to think so, but Iraq is both more complicated and less of a real nation than either of those old Axis powers. Germany and Japan are ethnically very homogeneous and cohesive, and that makes a huge difference.

A more instructive lesson might come from America's own South following the Civil War, where all it took was about 100 years before Washington was able to extend democracy to all ethnic groups.

Hold on, you say. You can't compare Richmond and Jeff Davis to Baghdad and Saddam Hussein!

And that's just the point. No, you can't. The South already had a long tradition of representative government and majority rule -- that is, rule by a majority of those who were allowed to vote -- and yet the federal effort to expand that tradition during Reconstruction nonetheless ended in failure. A century was to elapse between Appomattox and the Civil Rights Act, which ushered in democracy as we understand the term today.

In Iraq it's going to be a lot harder.

On top of having zero experience with democratic or law-based forms of government, Iraq has an array of different ethnic groups. The largest -- the majority -- is composed of Shiite Muslim Arabs, who belong to the same branch of Islam as the neighboring Iranians. A distinctly smaller population of Sunni Muslim Arabs, who share the same Muslim heritage as the other Arab nations, have always ruled the country -- under the Ottomans, under the British, under the monarchy, and under Mr. Hussein. Add to this Christian Arabs, the snakebit Kurds and a smaller number of Turkomans, and you've got a pretty good picture of Iraq today.

So what's the problem? If Shiites assume a place at the table in proportion to their numbers -- in other words, the commanding place -- the rest of the Arab world will go ballistic, or somewhere close to it. And if the Kurds get too much of a swagger, count on Turkey not to sit by idly.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that four different men of various ethnic groups claim to be mayor of the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. (Kirkuk happens to have extensive oil deposits, not coincidentally.) How long will it take an American occupation administrator to straighten that out? And then consider the whole country, which is 40 to 50 times Kirkuk's size.

If real democracy came to Iraq, its neighbors would be deeply unsettled. Maybe that's not so bad. There is, of course, the strong chance that a virulently anti-American government could be freely elected. But before the country even got to that point, ethnic animosities would present almost insurmountable obstacles to the creation of a fair and tolerant system.

This is not to say that democracy would be bad. Some vaguely representative system, like Afghanistan's new government, should be workable -- or at least as workable as the one in Kabul. But to say, as the White House has said, that Iraq will become a beacon of enlightenment in the Middle East, the match that lights the flame of democracy throughout the entire region -- well, excuse us, that's just whistlin' Dixie.

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