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Democracy in Iraq?

Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack

What should the government of Iraq after Saddam Hussein look like? The U.S. government has worked feverishly to address the problem—creating working groups and planning cells, formulating options, and discussing ideas with U.S. allies while pundits and analysts in the media, think tanks, and academia have further identified this issue as a vital one to ensure that peace in Iraq and in the region is secured.

Democracy lies at the heart of all of these discussions. President George W. Bush himself declared, “All Iraqis must have a voice in the new government, and all citizens must have their rights protected.” As members of a prosperous democratic society, U.S. citizens innately believe that democracy would be good for Iraqis too. The most optimistic have even offered a vision of a future Iraq as a “City on the Hill” for the Arab world that would inspire democracy throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Yet, skeptics abound. Adam Garfinkle, for example, argues that even trying to build democracy in the Arab world would not only fail but also further stoke anti-Americanism in the process. Overall, critics raise at least five related objections to creating a democratic Iraq that seem damning at first blush. First, they contend that acceptable alternatives to democracy exist for Iraq that, if hardly ideal, are more feasible and more likely to ensure the stability and cohesiveness of the country. Second, they argue that Iraq is not ready for democracy. Third, they state that Iraqi society is too fragmented for democracy to take hold. Even if Iraq held elections or had other outward institutions of democracy, in practice such a system would yield an illiberal result such as a tyranny of the Shi’a majority. Fourth, they insist that the transition to democracy in Iraq would be too perilous and the resulting government too weak; thus, the institutionalization of democracy, particularly a federal form of it, would fail. Critics often conjure a vision of an Iraq beset by civil strife with rival communities seeking revenge on one another while neighboring armies trample the country. Finally, they assert that the United States is too fickle, and the Iraqis too hostile, to give democracy the time it would need to grow and bear fruit. Overall, primarily for these five reasons, the doubters do not so much question the desirability of democracy in Iraq as they do its feasibility.

Claiming that building democracy in Iraq after the U.S.-led war to depose Saddam would be easy or certain—let alone that doing so might solve all of the problems of the Middle East overnight—would be foolish. Nevertheless, the arguments advanced by skeptics exaggerate the impediments to building democracy and ignore the potential impact that a determined United States could have on this effort. Iraq is hardly ideal soil for growing democracy, but it is not as infertile as other places where democracy has taken root. Iraq’s people are literate, and the country’s potential wealth is considerable. A properly designed federal system stabilized by U.S. and other intervening powers’ military forces could both satisfy Iraq’s myriad communities and ensure order and security. Creating democracy in Iraq would require a long-term U.S. commitment, but the United States has made similar commitments to far less strategic parts of the world. Creating a democracy in Iraq would not be quick, easy, or certain, but it should not be impossible either.

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