Originally published April 8, 2003 in the Washington Post.
President Bush and his advisers say they want democracy in Iraq. They also want a pro-Western Iraqi government, one that will be responsive to U.S. political, security and economic interests. What if those two goals turn out not to be compatible in the near term?
Take just one issue -- policy toward Israel. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman remarked at a news conference recently that he would be delighted if a new Iraqi government's first act was to recognize Israel. But is it really likely that a majority of Iraqis, if allowed to express their opinions freely, would push now for recognition of Israel?
If faced with the choice between a genuinely representative new Iraqi government that shows itself to be resistant to Washington's policy commands and an unrepresentative but compliant one, many in Washington will be tempted by the latter. But haven't we already discovered in other Middle East countries the problems with that choice? Wasn't one of the lessons of Sept. 11 that reflexive support for friendly Arab autocrats raises long-term security problems for the United States?
Suspicions in the Middle East and elsewhere are high that the president's pro-democracy declarations were only pleasing rhetoric. Often in the past the United States has misused the democracy rationale as a cover for policies of narrow self-interest. If the administration turns out to be interested only in a lapdog government in Baghdad, its hopes for building wider legitimacy for the war effort and convincing Arabs it is serious about democracy in the Middle East will evaporate.
The choice is already at hand as administration officials work on the critical task of assembling an interim Iraqi administration, to which they plan to start turning over authority within months. Some U.S. officials, primarily at the Pentagon, are pushing for a leading role for pro-American Iraqi exile figures, whom they know and like. State Department experts and others recommend a more inclusive process, possibly organized under U.N. auspices, in which diverse representatives from all parts of Iraq would be assembled and given authority to choose the interim administration.
The latter route is slower and more complicated, but it is much more likely to produce a body that will have legitimacy in Iraq and be the seed of real democratic pluralism and participation.
In making this and the many other dilemma-laden political choices ahead, the administration must pay attention to the crucial lessons gained from the hard experience of trying to build democracy in Bosnia, Cambodia, Haiti, Angola, Indonesia, El Salvador, Albania and elsewhere.
First, democracy does not come about when external powers anoint personal favorites. It is produced by the creation of new political processes and institutions that foster ongoing bargaining, compromise and consensus among all the major domestic forces. Any new political arrangement built on external fiat rather than on an inclusive domestic consensus will not last long once the military occupation ends.
Second, dividing the country's political elites into neat categories of democrat and non-democrat, and excluding the latter, would be a mistake. Today's self-declared democrats often turn out to be something different down the road. And apparent non-democrats can play a constructive role if they are built into the system. Undemocratic though its history certainly was, the Russian Communist Party has played a valid role in Russia's new democracy since 1991. El Salvador's former Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement is today a democratic political party.
Third, new constitutions should not be imposed. The greatest value of a new constitution in a democratic transition is the quality of the negotiations and consensus-building that go into it. The administration should back off its incipient plans to slap a quickly written Iraqi constitution into place and should instead encourage wide, genuine participation in the writing and approval process.
Fourth, elections should not be rushed. In societies riven by ethnic or religious divisions, and where experience with democracy is absent, early elections are often perceived as a winner-take-all process and can aggravate rather than resolve political conflict. The administration should nurture a period of growing pluralism and participation in which the contending Iraqi groups have time to learn to work with each other in new institutions rooted in compromise and openness. In difficult political transitions, national elections are often best put off for at least several years.
Finally, democratic transitions are usually messy. Military planning can, at least sometimes, be a precise art. Democracy planning can never be. In dozens of countries during the past 20 years, democratization has been chaotic, improvisational and plagued with setbacks and shortcomings. But it is still better than the alternative of reemergent authoritarianism.
Even in the best of worlds, democratization in Iraq would be extremely difficult. A true U.S. commitment to help Iraq in this struggle will require tremendous determination, subtlety and staying power. And when the tough choices arise between Iraqi politicians and policies oriented to pleasing Washington and those that actually represent Iraqis' views, the Bush administration will have to take a deep breath and show it is willing to meet the high standard of democracy it has set for itself.