Far from finish line

February 05, 2004|By Ray Salvatore Jennings

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Halfway between the creation of an occupation presence in Iraq and its termination this summer, it is tempting to think the United States is halfway to mission accomplished.

But let's not make this mistake again. The attention deficit disorder congenital to domestic politics - which brought us failure in Haiti, Congo, Liberia and Somalia along with inconclusiveness in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo - can still hardwire the Iraq transition for collapse. Twenty years of hard lessons in post-conflict democratization practice suggest we simply have a long way to go in Iraq. And in this marathon of reconstruction, the starting line is just over our shoulder.

There are at least two instances I recall in Baghdad whenever analysts suggest we are humming along nicely in Iraq.

In one, a man shoveling out one of Baghdad's hundreds of clogged sewer ditches muttered to me, "America can keep its `democracy.' We don't need it. We need security." He went on to describe how thieves stole his car at gunpoint the week before, how his family rarely left the house out of fear, how democracy looked to him to be an immoral free-for-all and how incomprehensible it is that the United States could not fix what ails Iraq in short order.

In another instance, in one of the garbage-filled alleys of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood of 2 million Shiites, I was engaging residents in a discussion of living conditions on their block. A woman edged to the front of the crowd, her black abaya robe frayed and caked with dust. "Why should we trust you?" she accused through the heat. Then, as if to soften her words, she added, "We trust no one. You'll learn when you are here." Nods in the crowd. "Trust no one but yourself."

Nothing will come cheap, fast or easy in Iraq, least of all democracy. Basic physical security is job No. 1. Controlling the unpredictability that crime and an intractable resistance bring to the Iraqi street will in turn allow economic security to emerge and imaginations to be captured by new ideas. And for true, self-sustaining democracy to emerge, it cannot simply be conceived as the sum of a constitution and elections.

Participatory governance requires the repudiation of a culture of selfish corruption. It requires support for citizens trying to rebuild the connective tissue of their society. As many Iraqis will tell you, under Saddam Hussein, it was almost impossible to have a strong personal morality or a sense of larger civic responsibility.

To re-establish this culture of trust, meaningful support to civic groups of all kinds is important. The good news is that hundreds are forming each month, from student associations to human rights and environmental organizations. Some are genuine. Most are not. But all are inexperienced in the politics of transition. Authentic groups that are not funded by neighboring countries or political parties need assistance developing achievable goals and reaching out to other, like-minded Iraqis.

Civic education initiatives will be important, too, to help citizens throughout Iraq begin to understand democracy not as a chaotic free-for-all or antecedent to immorality - as many Iraqis now fear it is - but as a system of protections and rights that also empowers.

Political party development is also necessary among Iraq's 75 self-declared "political organizations" to give reformers the edge they need to counter radical Islamist networks that are using fear to mobilize support. Coalition forces and Iraqi police must ensure that these reformers are protected and have the freedom to reach out to a weary public.

Programs to professionalize local media are also vital to establish more numerous and reliable information sources prior to the drafting of the constitution and elections. The occupation authority's efforts to erect a centralized instrument of public diplomacy in the Iraq Media Network are not the same as creating a vibrant, professional free press that will serve Iraqis long after the transfer of sovereignty.

Finally, work needs to begin in Iraq's villages to provide residents with the opportunity to practice democracy. Rural residents should elect councils the same way their urban neighbors now do. These councils should define reconstruction priorities and receive assistance to direct reconstruction and create jobs.

As in the cities, residents will pay close attention to their council's performance. This is democracy in miniature, and it may build a familiarity with accountability that will help assemble Iraq's institutions of democracy from the inside out and from the ground up.

If the contest is between a chaos-ridden Iraq and a free country that is to herald democratic revolution in the Middle East, we are only in the first few miles of the race.

Patience, humility, adequate resources and a broad front of political transition initiatives will be required to finish the course and help Iraqis begin their own experiment with democracy.

Ray Salvatore Jennings is the representative for Iraq at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own.

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