Plans for the political reconstruction of Iraq are bound to fail if they do not take into consideration that Iraq is not a political blank slate to be transformed at American will into a democratic, secular, pluralist, and federal state. It is a difficult country with multiple social groups and power centers with conflicting agendas. The United States must not try to impose a system of its own devising on these groups. Loose talk about bringing democracy to Iraq confuses what external actors can do and what Iraqis alone can accomplish.

The United States should also not underestimate the extent to which broader U.S. policies toward the Middle East and its handling of Iraq's oil will affect the willingness of parties within and outside Iraq to cooperate in its peaceful reconstruction. Washington's next steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in relations with Iran, and in shaping a new regional security system will determine whether the Iraq war is the beginning or the end of regional crisis and bloodshed.

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About the Authors
Marina Ottaway
is senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment. Her new book, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism, a comparative study of semiauthoritarian regimes in Africa, the Caucasus, Latin America, and the Middle East, was published in January 2003.
Judith S. Yaphe is senior research fellow and Middle East project director at the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University. She specializes in Iraq, Iran, Arabian and Persian Gulf security issues, political Islam, and Islamic extremism. Comments made by her are solely hers and do not represent the views of the National Defense University or any other government agency.

Also by Marina Ottaway:
Promoting Democracy in the Middle East: The Problem of U.S. Credibility (Carnegie Working Paper No. 35)
Democratic Mirage in the Middle East (Carnegie Policy Brief No. 20), coauthored with Thomas Carothers, Amy Hawthorne, and Daniel Brumberg
Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion (2000), coedited with Thomas Carothers
Africa's New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction? (1999)