Searching For Democracy

Iraq: Replacing a tyrant with the voice of the people was key in justifying invasion - but what if that voice isn't what America wants to hear?

November 23, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

There was once a free and fair election in an Islamic country, but the military decided it didn't like the outcome and staged a coup. The United States and other western powers gave their tacit approval.

That was Algeria in 1991, when a fundamentalist Islamic party won more than 40 percent of the seats in its parliament.

With democracy touted as a cure to all the evils of Iraq, many wonder what would happen if elections there did not go the way the United States had wanted.

"That's the whole issue with democracy, you can't control it," says Monty Marshall, who studies emerging democracies at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"It is inevitable, if a new regime actually voices the interests of the Iraqi people, it is not going to fit that well with the U.S. agenda," he says. "If it coincides exactly, you have to question what is going on."

Democracy, to Americans, is more than a system of governance, it is part of the country's essential mythology, the way for the voice of the populace to assert its unerring wisdom.

That myth is central to the justification of the invasion of Iraq - replacing a repressive tyrant with the freely expressed voice of the people. Putting up with what that voice has to say might be difficult.

"It is very dangerous to put all our Iraqi eggs in the democracy basket if the United States is deeply hypocritical about democracy, which we are," says Benjamin R. Barber, author of Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy.

"If America really believes in democracy, it must believe in the right of people to make decisions that make us unhappy," he says.

Barber, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park and wrote Jihad vs. McWorld, notes the shifting U.S. position on the United Nations.

"We created the U.N. and were a vital supporter as long as a majority of the General Assembly supported our position. ... But when the U.N. stopped voting the American way, we lost a lot of our enthusiasm. In the '80s, we defaulted on our dues. We saw it as a hostile institution, but it was perfectly democratic."

The first step in Iraq is getting a democracy established. It has become clear that many in the Bush administration had a rather romantic view of how that would happen.

Marshall says he met with administration officials before the war and laid out the difficult road ahead. "But the administration was not listening. They really were sure that the myth of democracy would prevail, that rational people would embrace freedom and live happily ever after. It was very fairytale-ish. That's naivete."

Reality has proven a bit more difficult. Marshall says one problem the United States faces is that the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein's regime were so successful. "They led to the deterioration of all the services and administrative structure necessary to make democracy work," he says.

Marshall also contends that the U.S. agenda is too ambitious, trying for a complete transformation of Iraqi society.

"You can point to the Bolsheviks in 1917," he says. "They were rife with democratic principles, but the fact is, they tried to do too much too quickly and that led to the inevitability of failure."

This desire for a broad-based change led to the removal of bureaucrats who could keep the government functioning, because they were from Hussein's Baathist party.

"If these Baathist party functionaries are not allowed a role in the new administration, you have already set yourself up for failure," he says.

Marshall's colleague at the University of Maryland, Jillian Schwedler, disagrees, saying it was right to purge the Baathists.

"In the transition, there is a tendency to favor the status quo, to look at what is in existence and work with it," she says. "But if you do that, you are less likely to get a meaningful transition to a genuine democracy."

Expunging the former ruling elite "is better in the long term, but it is much harder to get right in the short term," says Schwedler, a professor of political science.

The danger is if Iraq's Sunni Muslims, who dominated the Baathist party - or any other major element in the country - decide that they do not have a stake in the new democracy. That is when they resort to the kind of violence that currently vexes coalition forces.

Marshall says if the Sunnis had retained their government posts, the Sunni population would know that it would not be lost in a new Iraq, giving it the confidence to support the transition. This happened in South Africa where Afrikaners who dominated the bureaucracy stayed on their jobs as they faced the loss of power to a black majority.

Schwedler says that confidence can be instilled by developing institutions other than elections to redress grievances - especially courts.

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