Caruba: Can Democracy Succeed in Iraq
By Alan Caruba
In the midst of our desire to see a happy outcome in Iraq, we must never lose sight of the ability of Arabs to reject every opportunity to join the modern community of nations, i.e., the industrialized West and those in Asia who are working toward a more peaceful, integrated worldwide marketplace.
Much hinges on the fate of Iraq. As Bahram Saleh, a Kurdish leader, has said, “Iraq is the nexus where many issues are coming together—Islam versus democracy, the West versus the axis of evil, Arab nationalism versus some different types of political culture. If the Americans succeed here, this will be a monumental blow to everything the terrorists stand for.”
Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, perhaps said it best back in January 2003, writing of the American victory in Iraq. “Congratulations! You’ve just won the Arab Yugoslavia—an artificial country congenitally divided among Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Nasserites, leftists and a host of tribes and clans that can only be held together with a Saddam-like fist. Congratulations, you’re the new Saddam.” A bit cheeky to be sure, but Friedman perhaps knew that the last thing the Bush administration wanted was to occupy and rule Iraq as we had done for many years in Japan and Germany after WWII. The US wanted out as fast as possible. The US wanted to liberate and leave.
The US discovered, however, an Iraq in which the national infrastructure that had been neglected for decades by the Saddam regime, opposition to occupation even by a liberating military, and an army and police force that had been utterly debased and corrupted by the former gangster government and economy. Little wonder the first instinct of Iraqis was to loot anything that was not nailed down.
Since the end of World War I and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire, we have allowed ourselves to believe there was a nation called Iraq. When French and British diplomats drew lines on the map of the Middle East, Iraq emerged despite the fact that it was home to several very distinct ethnic and religious groups.
The present post-Saddam Iraq is a Humpty Dumpty sitting on the narrow edge of a proposed new constitution in a place where the rule of law has never really existed, let alone notions that include the equal status of women or even the concept of private property. Property rights in Iraq have always been a matter of custom, not law. Without real property rights, there can be no democracy and no modern capitalist economy.
Consider what John Zogby, an Arab-American of Lebanese descent and noted pollster, had to say in April 2003 regarding the establishment of a democratic government in Iraq. “I know my people. We are an ungovernable people. I’m sorry.” He was not alone. Egyptian-born Sherine El-Abd, president of a Women’s Republican Club in Middlesex, New Jersey, had serious doubts Iraq’s diverse population of 25 million people could make the transition to a unified nation. “In addition to the fact that they don’t trust anything America stands for, people who have lived under suppression don’t trust any figures in authority. A lot of Arabs who have immigrated to the United States and lived here for 20 or 30 years don’t even participate in the system here.”
Of course, we do have the evidence of the many Iraqis who came out and voted in the elections to begin the process toward democracy. Some remain optimistic. Samer Shehata, an Egyptian-American assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University notes that democracy requires institutional structures such as an independent judiciary, a free press, and a culture of political participation. Wisely he warns that this is not a process that can occur in a few months.
Nor is progress toward democracy aided when neighboring nations such as Syria and Iran are totally opposed to it, funding and arming anyone who will fight to destroy a new, free Iraq. Add to that pit of vipers, the former Baath Party members. They may never believe they have been or can be defeated. Though only about fifteen percent of the population, the Sunnis are the backbone of the insurgency and, as Andrew Apostolou, director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, pointed out in December 2003, “The party’s ability to rise from the grave is legendary. The Baathists believe that they never suffered true defeats.”
None of this is helped by talk from local US commanders and out of Washington, DC about “timetables” to pull our troops out. That kind of thing only encourages those waging war on the barely birthed new Iraq and its constitution. It reminds Shiites of promises made and abandoned that got thousands of them killed after Washington encouraged an uprising against Saddam. It reminds Kurds of the losses they incurred in their long struggle to establish themselves as an independent region and political entity.
Indeed, the most amazing thing about Iraq is the fact that its interim president is a Kurd. Jalal Talabani, who along with his sometime rival, Mas’ud Barzani, saw the vacuum of power in Baghdad after Saddam’s overthrow and left their strongholds to establish a presence there. Some observers think that, if things don’t go well for the new government, the Kurds will decide it is time to carve out a big chunk of Iraq and other nations in the area to declare the nation of Kurdistan. It would include northern Iraq, plus parts of eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran. You can bet that’s what the leaders in those nations are thinking too.
The Kurds, though, have enjoyed a decade of real autonomy in Iraq and joining with other groups to establish a new Iraq may appeal to them if for no other reason than to hold onto the wealth generated by the oil reserves around Mosul and Kirkuk.
So, before we get to celebrating too long or too hard about Iraq’s new constitution, let’s remember we are dealing, for the most part, with Arabs. They don’t like us. They don’t like each. There isn’t a single Arab nation that is a democracy. They have never really known anything but kings, despots, civil wars or coup d’etats.
The job of the United States is to drag and push the Iraqis and the rest of the Middle East into the 2lst century. Otherwise, this region is going to continue to produce bombers and other horrid people for a long time to come. We may well have to invade a few other nations or at least send the occasional cruise missile to let them know that we are displeased.
Recent polls suggest Americans are losing interest in the war. One thing’s for sure. If we lose our nerve in Iraq, the Jihadists will win.
© Alan Caruba, 2005
About the Author
Federal Observer contributor Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", that is posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center, a clearinghouse for information about scare campaigns designed to influence public policy and opinion.
The Caruba Archives at The Federal Observer