The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Benign Autocracy Is Answer for Iraq,1,6727607.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

      September 7, 2003


Benign Autocracy Is Answer for Iraq

By Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Ray Takeyh is a professor and director of
studies at the Near East and South Asia Center, National Defense University,
and Nikolas Gvosdev is a senior fellow at the Nixon Center.

WASHINGTON - Last month, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice declared
that it was in America's strategic interests "to work with those in the
Middle East who seek progress toward greater democracy, tolerance,
prosperity and freedom." A democratic Iraq, she continued, "can become a key
element of a very different Middle East." But would the flourishing of
democracy in Iraq really serve America's core interests? In a country
lacking a strong national identity, a country in which ethnic and regional
loyalties are paramount, democracy could well result in another Lebanon - an
unstable patchwork of local ethnic fiefdoms perilously perched at the brink
of civil war.

Iraq lacks well-rooted institutions. It lacks the national political
parties, civic associations, even business conglomerates that create common
interests upon which a stable democracy rests. The looting triggered by the
collapse of the old regime clearly demonstrated the lack of a civil society
capable of promoting general interests above individual ones.

Moreover, even if a sustainable democracy could be created in Iraq, there is
no guarantee it would be amenable to American strategic interests. The
ongoing acts of resistance - as well as the growing frustration with the
presence of American and British forces even in Shiite areas of the
country - point to a nationalistic rejection of the occupation.

Iraqis were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein but show little inclination to
be directed by the United States in any aspect of domestic or foreign
policy. Under such conditions, it's ludicrous to expect an Iraqi leadership
to be responsive to American concerns and, at the same time, seek an
electoral mandate from a disgruntled populace that does not support U.S.
goals for the region.

America's democratic impulse is similarly self-defeating in the rest of the
Middle East. Despite the claims of the Bush team, our essential interests
are unlikely to be realized in a more democratic Middle East. To maintain
stability, contain its rivals and displace its nemeses, the U.S. needs
garrisons, naval installations and the cooperation of local intelligence
services. It needs to ensure that the price of oil remains stable. And it
needs to continue its commitment to Israel.

It is hard to see how any of these responsibilities can be easily discharged
in a democratic Middle East.

Throughout the region, opposition to the United States cuts across
ideological and cultural boundaries and unites seemingly disparate groups.
Take the case of the peace process. In the two states that have enacted
formal peace treaties with Israel - Egypt and Jordan - much popular opinion
is strongly hostile to such obligations. It is autocrats, not popular
assemblies, who keep the peace process alive.

Given such views, American policy objectives are unlikely to fare well in a
pluralistic Middle East.

Nor would the United States find a democratic Middle East a more hospitable
terrain for its antiproliferation priorities. Prospective democracies in the
Middle East, including Iraq, would face strong nationalistic pressure to
modernize their armed forces and develop weapons to compete with a
nuclear-armed Israel. Washington has had some success in coaxing, bribing
and pressuring Arab despots to comply with nonproliferation treaties, but it
would have little leverage with democratic regimes. It is significant that
none of the opposition parties in either Pakistan or Iran supports any move
toward a nuclear freeze.

The best that the United States can hope for is to encourage the rise of
liberal autocracies that will accommodate popular demands for accountability
and participation while still maintaining close ties with the United States.
The model of liberal autocracy is not without precedent in the Arab-Muslim
world. Several of the region's most stable and pro-American regimes are
already moving toward this type of governance. The modernizing monarchies of
Morocco, Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait and the liberalizing one-party state of
Tunisia all serve to illustrate this indigenous trend.

This sort of liberal autocracy should be America's model for political
reconstruction in Iraq. Instead of quixotic democratic schemes, Washington
should create a strong central government in Baghdad, one that is responsive
to its citizens but also capable of regulating local rivalries and is
insulated from popular pressure.

America's goal should be to transfer power to an indigenous regime as soon
as possible, not to use Iraq as some sort of social-science laboratory for
nation-building. The United States should select an efficient new leadership
capable of initiating market and other reforms while also managing popular
discontent with American policies. There is a great deal of talent in the
midlevel ranks of the military and civil service that can be tapped for such
a purpose.

Empowering pragmatic local administrators (as opposed to exiled politicians)
would ensure that the leadership is in touch with the needs of the Iraqi
people, and that it would have a good chance of surviving even after the
U.S. withdraws.

The continuing unrest in Iraq today demonstrates that its citizens crave
services, not abstract notions of pluralism. If a new regime improves the
quality of life for Iraqi citizens, it will gain popular support - even if
it was backed initially by the U.S.

The United States is at a crossroads. It can either face the very real risks
of democratization or dispense with its Wilsonian pieties and craft a
durable new order for the Middle East. It cannot do both.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]