April 22, 2003
the conflicting news stories, suggesting that different factions
leak to different media outlets or different writers, it is almost
impossible for a mere citizen to get anything resembling a clear
idea of U.S. intentions in postwar Iraq. Is the United States there
for the long haul, or will a noticeable presence be a matter of
"months not years" as some officials at retired Gen. Jay
Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid anonymously
told the Washington Post? Based on what officials are
telling people it is difficult to know.
is deeply ironic, of course. The administration boldly told us that
its purpose in Iraq was not mere weapons discovery or regime change,
but bringing democracy to the country and eventually to the region,
that brave promise that seems to make every move toward empire acceptable
to most of the American people. If democracy means much of anything,
it should have something to do with government serving and doing
the will of the people.
most American spokesmen, right down to gunnery sergeants with a
TV camera in their face, is able to declare that what they're really
about is not deciding how this or that mosque or power plant is
going to operate, but preserving options so "the Iraqi people"
can decide. You can also hear plenty of discussion of the importance
of "transparency," one of the hot buzzwords in government
circles (and corporate as well) the last few years, meaning that
the decision-making process is as open as possible, with as few
secrets as possible, so that the people can offer input and do assessments
pretty much in real time.
the great power that plans to teach democracy to Iraq doesn't even
make a pretense of asking the American people what they would like
to see done now that Saddam's odious regime is (presumably) gone.
And rather than being transparent, the process of deciding is all
done behind the scenes, to the ordinary American who is not a policymaker
(i.e., tax consumer) it is all very confused and confusing. Rather
than asking the people and taking their preferences into account,
the government is content to keep the people in the dark about its
plans for the future of Iraq, with the only information provided
by contradictory leaks.
to think of it, maybe it's a brilliant strategy. This sounds like
the version of democracy that a country that has never experienced
it or shown much hunger for it – not a bad description of most of
the Middle East – could embrace enthusiastically.
this discussion about whether democracy can be transplanted into
Middle Eastern sand masks a certain confusion about what democracy
is and why so many Americans think it is so desirable as to want
to export it to other climes. Unfortunately, we may be in danger
of focusing on form rather than substance.
to its essentials, democracy is simply a way by which political
leaders are chosen – through a vote of some subset of the people
rather than by virtue of being born into the "right" family
as in a monarchy or aristocracy. (An interesting and provocative
case might be made for the apparent preference of democratic masses
for family dynasties – Bushes, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Tafts et. al.
in the United States, Nehru-Gandhis in India, Churchills in Britain,
et. al. – but that apparent nostalgia for monarchical dynasties
is a topic for another bemused column.)
it the fact of elections that makes democracy preferable to other
political systems? Some would suggest so, but a stronger case can
be made that other aspects of a reasonably well-functioning political
system (I would be the last to suggest that any political
system is perfect or, perhaps, even inherently desirable) are far
more important to its being relatively peaceful and productive.
Perhaps most important is the existence of a concept resurrected
as the Soviet empire was crumbling, that of the civil society.
his recent book, Conditions
of Liberty, English scholar Ernest Gellner (who moved to
the Central European University in Prague after the Velvet Revolution)
offered this abbreviated definition of a civil society (the book
as a whole expands on the ideas and explores nuances): "that
set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough
to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state
from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between
major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and
atomizing the rest of society."
finds this definition incomplete, in that it could be understood
to include as components of civil society various tribal or kin
groups that can be quite as oppressive as a central dictatorship.
A more complete understanding would view civil society as the network
of independent institutions and habits of thought that encourage
individual independence and the expectation that people should be
treated fairly because they are people, not because they have connections
or are part of some group, ruling or otherwise.
civil society helps a democracy to function, to take just one example,
by encouraging people to accept the results of an election peacefully
on the expectation that there is at least some hope that the victors
will not persecute the losers too overtly or brutally and there
is at least a chance for the minority to become the majority some
day and succeed at the next election. The test for the United States
came in 1800, when one political party actually displaced what had
been the ruling party and promised to carry out policies the losing
Federalists (actually centralists, but political actors are always
expropriating attractive terms) considered disastrous. Had the Federalists
not accepted the results peacefully U.S. history might have been
practice, while Jefferson's Republicans did do several things differently,
they didn't challenge the Hamiltonian economic system the previous
administration had put in place and that was the chief source of
contention during Federalist rule. So perhaps part of the democratic
bargain is the implicit understanding that a new ruling majority
will not change things too drastically, that it will nibble around
the edges of policy differences rather than try to effect a revolution
after one successful election.
political parties have evolved into coalitions of interests rather
than ideological parties with real transformative programs. To most
residents this blurring of distinctions is probably vaguely reassuring,
although to people who really do want transformative change and
who sincerely believe that the changes they want are constructive
and progressive, it can be frustrating. A pure "majority rules"
system wouldn't work like this. A majority would be able to do whatever
it wanted without worrying about compromise, but that would be an
extremely unstable system.
as a pure abstract concept, democracy as a way of organizing a government
doesn't necessarily imply respect for the rights either of a minority
or of the individual. It very well could resemble the whimsical
definition – a pack of wolves and a lamb voting on what's for dinner.
For a democracy not to be destabilizing and exploitative, it needs
to be built on a foundation of respect for individual rights and
minorities, an understanding that there are certain things a majority
simply cannot do. The U.S. Bill of Rights is a limit on pure democracy
rather than an inherently democratic outgrowth; it is a statement
that no matter how large the majority, there are certain things
a government put in place by that majority simply cannot and must
strong case can be made, then, that it is not democracy per se that
so many Americans find desirable, but the limitations on pure democracy
that were put in place by the Constitution (building on a widespread
understanding of the proper role of government at the time) and
by customs and precedents that have evolved over our subsequent
history. When they speak lazily about "democracy," most
Americans probably mean to include all or most of these concepts
like rule of law and respect for the rights of minorities within
the idea of democracy. While such concepts are probably essential
to keeping democracies from being too oppressive, however, they
are not logically part-and-parcel of democracy as a system of governance.
is desirable about what Americans still have some shreds left of,
is not so much democracy as liberty. Rhetorically the idea of liberty
is still powerful enough that our political leaders feel the need
to speak of freedom and liberty even as they systematically undermine
it by (for example) leading the country into unnecessary wars. But
it is more useful for the ruling elites to have the concepts of
liberty, democracy and freedom all muddled together in the minds
of most Americans as something of an unexamined religion that leads
most Americans to respect duly constituted authority so long as
it claims to be acting in defense of liberty.
ROAD NOT NOTICED
there is something in the American experience, especially as expressed
in the founding documents, that might well be useful to a country
like Iraq. Unfortunately, most of our leaders, and especially the
kind of civil-service and military bureaucrats we're likely to send
over to assist the proconsul in building the new Iraq, give only
lip service at best to the concept; at worst (and most often) they
despise the notion with every fiber of their being and seek to replace
it with institutions that have a bit more power, thank you.
refer, of course, to the idea of a decentralized system with an
extremely weak central government that has not much power beyond
appointing diplomats to travel to useless conferences and perhaps
collecting a tariff or two. In a country like Iraq, with its different
ethnic groups that were administered as three separate provinces
under the old Ottoman Empire, such a system – if it could be guaranteed
that the central government would remain so weak as not to be a
threat to a minority – just might be tolerable.
the kind of national and international bureaucrats who will be in
charge of installing "democracy" in Iraq are almost all
of them ideological apostles (without knowing they are ideologues;
they think everybody thinks the way they do and such thought patterns
are simply reflective of reality) of the modern heresy of the powerful
centralized state – just and benevolent, of course, but indubitably
powerful. There is little chance they will erect institutions that
limit the power of the central government so radically, effectively
and persuasively that Sunnis or Kurds will not feel threatened if
the Shiites are in nominal control, because they won't have enough
power to oppress. Quite frankly, they don't believe in such "weak"
systems. They believe in powerful central states that manage pretty
much every aspect of life in a geographical region.
such a state in Iraq, with its ethnic fractiousness, is an invitation
to conflict. Without the concept of a civil society informed by
the idea that peoples' individuality is more important than their
ethnic group, each ethnic group is likely to want to control the
central government – if not to oppress the other groups, then to
serve as a defense against the possible urge to oppress by the others.
Insofar as the underlying culture encourages people to think in
terms of tribal or ethnic loyalties rather than as an individual
to whom ethnicity is simply an interesting variation – which seems
likely to be the case in the Middle East for a long time to come
– a democracy that yields a powerful central state is likely to
invite either fractiousness or a dictatorship. A dictatorship seems
these observations does not suggest that I hope the American administrators
adopt an ideology of radically limited and decentralized government
and try to impose it on Iraq. Aside from the low likelihood factor,
given the kinds of people who go into nation-building as a vocation,
it would still be a system imposed by an outside force. Whether
wise and constructive or foolish and flawed, it would still be resented
and eventually subverted by the Iraqis.
I would prefer would be for Americans to do the minimum needed in
terms of mopping up and get out as quickly as possible. As individuals
Americans certainly have the right to hope that Iraq and the rest
of the Middle East eventually move toward more enlightened modes
of governance – and as individuals even the right to volunteer to
move there or to serve as consultants to help move those societies
in whatever direction they deem constructive. But that doesn't give
our government the right to impose what we deem to be constructive
values at the point of a gun. In fact, imposing democratic or liberty-oriented
values at the point of a gun comes pretty close to being a contradiction
in terms but it's a contradiction too many Americans, for
a host of complex reasons, are vulnerable to embracing.
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