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[casi] Democracy in Iraq, Acts I and II

December 8, 2003

Democracy in Iraq, Acts I and II

by Patrick Basham

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government
at the Cato Institute.
The good news is that the Bush administration now acknowledges the failure
of its initial democratization policy in Iraq. The bad news is that the
White House now thinks it has a better idea. The reality is that President
Bush, having rhetorically raised the democratic bar sky high, can guarantee
the Iraqi people, at best, nothing more than Afghanistan-style democracy,
and that's nothing to brag about.

Act 1 of the attempt to democratize Iraq, which you may have forgotten by
now, unfolded as follows:
During the summer, Amb. Paul Bremer, Iraq's civilian administrator,
handpicked a Governing Council to serve as a de facto interim government
until national elections were held. But the council is an advisory, not a
governing, body. Not only is security excluded from the council's remit, but
also Bremer retains veto power over all of the council's decisions.

The council was composed primarily along ethnic and religious lines, thereby
institutionalizing ethnic and religious divisions. Iraqis dismissed the
council as an unelected, unrepresentative, and, therefore, illegitimate
puppet of the American "occupation."
The protracted steps taken to date toward developing a new constitution have
further made clear the fault lines in Iraqi society. A preparatory committee
failed to agree on delegates to a constitutional convention and thus did not
meet a Sept. 30 deadline to present a recommendation to the Governing
Council. The UN Security Council subsequently requested that the Governing
Council propose a timetable for the drafting of a constitution and
subsequent democratic elections by Dec. 15.

But the White House correctly forecasts that the mid-December deadline, and
any future deadlines, will pass without decisive action. President Bush
can't afford to wait a couple of years, or more. He has an election race to
run next year.
Hence, Act II. All indications are that Bremer will dust off an approach he
rejected several months ago, i.e., an attempt to duplicate the democratic
"gift" the Bush administration bestowed upon newly liberated Afghanistan.

That's the approach long favored by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In
post-Taliban Afghanistan, a UN-sponsored Grand Council of Afghani tribal
elders, held in Bonn, Germany, in Dec. 2001, announced the formation of an
interim government and elected Hamid Karzai as president.

In the Iraqi context, Bremer would organize a comparable US-run conference
that appoints members of an interim Iraqi administration. The interim
administration, equipped with real power, would run the day-to-day
government for a transitional period until a constitution is written and
elections are organized.

Afghanistan, however, provides an especially sobering reminder that
democratic seeds planted in inhospitable soil won't take root.
The current political outlook in Afghanistan is uncertain, to say the least,
despite the Bush administration's pledge to reconstitute that country's
political system. Unfortunately, President Karzai is little more than the de
facto mayor of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Beyond the capital, Afghanistan is
partitioned with tribal warlords exercising dictatorial power over each

The Bonn conference set Afghanistan's first democratic national election for
June 2004 (although it may now be postponed until at least 2005). There is
considerable concern within the State Department that these elections will
merely rubber-stamp -- and legalize -- the warlords' de facto political

Historian Amatzia Baram, an expert on modern Iraqi politics, cautions: "As
the US experience in Afghanistan suggests, giving too much power to tribal
sheikhs may turn some of them into independent warlords whom the central
government will be unable to control." But powerful, frequently illiberal,
tribal and religious political leadership is exactly what is in store for
Iraq under any foreseeable set of circumstances.

Applying the Afghani model will speed the American withdrawal from Iraq and
will be popular among the Iraqi people. Both are good things. But let's not
pretend that a liberal democracy will spring to life in Iraq. Even after the
occupying forces abandon Iraq, its economic woes, and those deep ethnic and
religious divisions will remain.

A foreign power can do little to advance democracy's evolutionary clock
beyond the limits imposed by the domestic society's economic and cultural
development. This fact cannot be altered by Washington's wishful thinking or
noble intent. But it can be acknowledged as a first step to lowering a
democratic bar that currently hovers dangerously high over Iraq.

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