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How democracy could fail in Iraq

Nineteenth century French writer and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville said, "The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform." He could have been talking about today's Iraq.

President Bush dragged our nation into this hornets' nest by misleading us over weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's connection to terrorism; now all he has left as a justification for 500 dead American soldiers is Iraq's democratization.

But bringing representative self-government to a place steeped in religious, tribal and ethnic rivalries _ a place with no national tradition of political participation or trust toward one's fellow countrymen, and little experience in tolerance toward minorities _ is going to be a high-wire act worthy of the Flying Wallendas.

Putting aside the troubles L. Paul Bremer III is having with Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sistani on how and when the United States is to transfer sovereignty back to Iraqis, the real question is whether there are any plausible near-term prospects for the creation of a liberal democracy in Iraq. To answer that, one needs to plumb what is required for one.

Are democracies created through the top-down development of political structures and institutions? Will an overlay of a constitution, some form of representative legislature and the establishment of elections be enough to turn Iraq into a democracy, or are there intangible barriers that make it ridiculous to think that five and a half months from now Iraq will be a model of self-rule?

My money's on ridiculous.

Democracy in Iraq isn't a rational goal within two decades, according to Cato Institute senior fellow Patrick Basham. In a policy analysis released earlier this month, Basham argues that it is normative culture and not mechanics such as parties and elections that determine whether democracy will succeed.

"Four cultural factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a stable democratic political system," Basham writes. "The first is political trust. The second factor is social tolerance. The third is a widespread recognition of the importance of basic political liberties. The fourth is popular support for gender equality."

Iraq has none of these.

What Iraq does have is tribes, 150 of them. Its 25-million people are not only divided along religious and ethnic lines, 75 percent of the population is also connected to a tribe as a base allegiance. Tribal societies _ contrary to the democratic ideal of autonomous actors, each operating on behalf of the social good _ tend to be less individualistic, viewing the world from an "us versus them" vantage.

When 100,000 Iraqi Shiites took to the streets last week demanding direct elections, they were not agitating for Western democratic values. They want the political and economic power that has eluded the strict Islamic sect since Iraq's creation by the British in 1920. Iraq is 60 percent Shiite. As a decided majority, they know an electoral democracy will serve their interests. But it won't serve much else. Forget political meritocracy, forget women's rights, forget the separation of church and state; an Iraq under Shiite rule will more closely resemble Iran than secular Europe.

Is this the kind of "freedom" we have sacrificed 500 Americans for?

During his initial presidential campaign Bush said he would steer clear of nation-building. Too bad he didn't stick to that, because he stinks at it. By diverting our attentions from Afghanistan to Iraq, he has allowed the terrorist incubator to devolve into a nation of fiefdoms controlled by warlords and revived elements of the Taliban. Iraq will be another failure. We are transferring power back to Iraqis on a schedule that makes a lot of sense for Bush-Cheney 2004 but not much for the country's future as a durable liberal democracy.

There is a reason political pluralism, individual liberty and self-rule do not exist in any of the 16 Arab nations in the Middle East. Cultural traditions there tend toward anti-intellectualism, religious zealotry and patriarchy, values which provide little fertile ground for progressive thinking. The U.N. Arab Human Development Report of 2002 noted that the Arab world translates only about 330 books annually.

As laid down in his 2002 pre-emption strategy, Bush pledged to use "every tool in our arsenal" to promote a "single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise." He followed through by using military force to export the Enlightenment to a part of the world that has none of the component parts needed to embrace or sustain it.

A "dangerous moment" doesn't begin to describe it.