WASHINGTON -- It isn't often you get to see a live political science experiment, but that is what we're about to witness in Iraq as the first interim Iraqi government is formed from the different factional leaders in the country.
What American advisers and this Iraqi interim government will attempt to answer is the most fundamental question facing the Arab world and many developing countries: How do you get from here to there? How do you go from a brutal authoritarian regime to a decent, accountable, democratizing society, without ending up with an Iranian-style theocracy or chaos?
Interestingly enough, what the smartest experts in the democracy field all seem to agree on is that this interim Iraqi authority should not focus on holding national elections -- the hardware of democracy. Elections should come last. Instead, it must start with the software -- building, brick by brick, the institutions of a free society -- so that when people do get to vote, when national power is up for grabs, they have a range of choices and can be assured that there will be a rotation of power.
"The heart of building liberal democracy is building the institutions of liberty, not holding a quick election," observes Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, whose smart and timely new best seller, The Future of Freedom, addresses this exact problem. "Building the institutions of democracy is not 50 percent of the job. It is 90 percent of the job. It was in Western history. It was for East Asia, and it will be so for Iraq."
This means, argues Mr. Zakaria, concentrating first and foremost on building the "institutions of liberty": a functioning judicial system, a free press, free speech, economic reform, civic institutions and multiple political parties, all anchored in a constitution that has the support, and input, of the main political forces in the nation.
"Elections are an important virtue of governance," notes Mr. Zakaria, "but they are not the only virtue. ... Economic, civil and religious liberties are at the core of human autonomy and dignity. If a government with limited democracy steadily expands these freedoms, it should not be branded a dictatorship."
A decent, gradually democratizing government in Iraq, concludes Mr. Zakaria, could "provide a better environment for life, liberty and happiness" for Iraqis than the more-hardware-than-software illiberal democracies, such as Venezuela and Russia, do for their people.
The challenge for the United States will be to build such a foundation of liberty in a country with virtually no legacy of it at all. Under ideal conditions that will take years -- and it is not clear the Bush team is ready to invest that degree of time, money and people.
Staying power is essential because Iraq under Saddam Hussein exhibited the same "distorted political landscape" of so many of its Arab neighbors, says Larry Diamond, the noted democracy specialist at Stanford's Hoover Institution: that is, a voiceless, disempowered, moderate political center -- both secular and religious -- squeezed between the iron fist of the patriarchal state and the grass-roots alternative of illiberal, intolerant Muslim fundamentalists.
With Mr. Hussein's iron fist now removed, the United States must help an authentically Iraqi moderate center emerge and sink roots, and not just allow illiberal Islamists to fill the void. This means, Mr. Diamond says, "bringing in the technical advisers and recruiting Iraqis committed to the rule of law, who can gradually build the software of democracy" -- from independent courts to countercorruption and audit agencies to an independent press to independent parties -- and then give Iraqis time to learn how to use such tools, while slowly working up from local to national elections.
And don't kid yourself: Some kind of multinational peacekeeping force (a NATO-Arab force?) will have to be present for years, while a new Iraqi military, able to defend Iraq's new institutions, is constructed.
"It is possible -- just possible -- that Iraq could gradually develop into a democracy," argues Mr. Diamond. "It will require, though, a prolonged and internationalized engagement with Iraq, costing billions of dollars over a number of years. We must not repeat the mistakes of our postwar engagement with Afghanistan, which has been ad hoc, haphazard, inadequately funded, tardy in reconstruction and utterly unwilling to deploy and utilize the military force necessary to secure the new political order."
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.