It would be foolish to believe that democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq will be easy or certain — let alone that doing so might solve all of the problems of the Middle East. Iraq has real problems that are going to make the creation of a functional democracy there difficult and lengthy. As critics of intervention have noted, Iraq has little experience of democracy, deep ethnic and religious fissures, and a population traumatized by 34 years of totalitarian misrule.
But while the barriers may be high, establishing a real democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein is not impossible and offers the best prospect of solving the problems that have beset Iraq over the years.
The Iraqi people would receive a reprieve from a brutal dictatorship, over a decade of sanctions and repeated wars. Moreover, a failure to establish democracy in Iraq would be a disaster. Civil war, massive refugee flows and even renewed interstate fighting would likely resurface and plague this long-cursed region. A failure for democracy to take root would add credence to charges that the United States cares little for Muslims and Arabs — a charge that now involves security, as well as moral, considerations.
Perhaps the best reason to invest in building democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq is that the alternatives are far worse. The conditions in Iraq today do not lend themselves to any other form of government — only another ruthless, mass-murdering dictator like Saddam would have any chance of holding the country together.
Iraqi history is one of strife, chaos, war and even near genocide — hardly ideal ground for democracy. But the fact that Iraq has never had a functional democracy does not doom it for all eternity to never have one. There are quite a few countries around the world today that had little or no democratic tradition in the past, but that during the last 20 years have developed into functioning democracies — admittedly, often with their problems.
In Latin America, East Asia, Eastern Europe and even sub-Saharan Africa, democracy has broken out in the most unlikely of places — and in societies that doubters insisted for years could never become democratic. Remember all of the talk about how East Asia’s “Confucian societies” were culturally bred to conformity and autocracy and could therefore never become democratic? Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the rest have already proven that to be a canard.
The criticism that Iraq cannot become democratic is further belied by the fact that in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq it has already enjoyed some noteworthy successes. Despite being beset by infighting, economic dislocation and other problems, the Kurds have nonetheless established a reasonably stable form of power sharing. Iraq also has a number of advantages that would likely contribute to a successful effort to build democracy. Prior to the Gulf war, it had probably the best educated, most secular and most progressive population of all of the Arab states.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Iraqi democracy will be the potential for one group to use the electoral process to dominate the country and exclude others. Thus, Iraq’s Shiite community, which comprises over 60% of the total population, might use free elections to transform its current exclusion from power to one of total dominance — and knowing this, Sunni Arabs, and perhaps the Kurds, might oppose a majority rule-based system. The key for an Iraqi democracy will be whether it can fashion a system that addresses the potential problem of a “tyranny of the majority.”
There is no reason it can’t.
Perhaps surprisingly, a democratic system with some similarities to the American system could probably do the trick. Iraq’s system must ensure minority rights, limit the ability of the central government to impose its will on its citizens, include checks and balances to ensure that control of one part of the government does not translate into a form of dictatorship of the majority, and encourage compromise and cooperation among members of otherwise well-defined groupings.
A key difference with an American-style system would be recognizing the reality of Iraq’s ethnic and religious divisions — and working with and overcoming them over time. A properly designed electoral system can foster moderation, and leave firebrands isolated and out of power.
For example, to reduce the role of ethnicity and sect, Iraq could employ a system of representation determined by geography to encourage cooperation across ethnic and religious lines. Although there is a fair degree of communal correlation with geography — the Kurds live in the north, the Shiites in the south, the Sunnis in the west — there are also important regions of overlap. In Baghdad and large chunks of central Iraq, Sunni, Shiite and Kurds are well mixed. By insisting on a system of geographically determined representation, Iraqi legislators elected from these mixed districts would have an incentive to find compromise solutions to national problems to try to please their mixed constituencies.
If such a democracy is to succeed, the international community — and particularly the United States — must play midwife to the nascent Iraqi state. Even if all goes well, it will take years for the new government to gain the trust of the Iraqi people, demonstrate its ability to maintain order and broker compromises, and allow the institutions of a democratic society to mature.
Typically, the greatest problem for new democracies is the fear of civil strife, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Saddam has nurtured communal hatred for more than 30 years, during the early days after his fall minor provocations could spiral out of control and spark internecine conflicts. In addition, Iraq’s neighbors have a history of meddling and might seize on any perceived power vacuum to intervene in Iraq to advance their interests.
Thus, the first and most important role for the United States is to ensure the safety of the Iraqi people by establishing a security presence throughout the country. Immediately after Saddam falls, this will likely require a presence of as many as 200,000 troops in Iraq, but within one to two 2 years — and possibly earlier if all goes well — should be superseded by a multinational force of 50,000-100,000 well-trained American and foreign troops — preferably acting under a United Nations mandate, though not under U.N. military leadership.
The mandate of the American-led peacekeeping force would be to ensure that no group or individual can use violence for political advantage. It is a role for which American and European troops are eminently well qualified, and which they have played successfully on numerous occasions in the past.
The United States also must be prepared to stay the course for many years. Critics contend that democratization in Iraq will fail because the United States’ own lassitude will lead to an early withdrawal. But the claim that the United States would not be willing to sustain a lengthy commitment has been made — and disproven — repeatedly.
In his 2002 history of American decision making on postwar Germany, “The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941–1945,” Michael Beschloss relates countless incidents in which senior American policy-makers — including President Franklin Roosevelt — asserted that the American people would not be willing to keep troops in Europe for more than one or two years. Beschloss quotes Senator Burton Wheeler charging that the American people would not tolerate a lengthy occupation of Europe, which he called a “seething furnace of fratricide, civil war, murder, disease, and starvation.”
Similar statements are made about Iraq today by those who claim the United States will not be willing to do what is necessary to help democracy flourish in Iraq.
America’s record, though, belies the criticism of lassitude. The recent transatlantic row with “Old Europe” is testament to just how thriving democracy is today in Germany — and to the depth of American commitment to spreading democracy.
As we prepare for Saddam’s fall, we should not delude ourselves: Building democracy in Iraq will be difficult and expensive, and will take years. But there is no reason that Iraq cannot join the ranks of democratic nations if the United States is willing to take on the burdens of doing so ourselves, and build a coalition of nations willing to help us in doing so.
Moreover, we must also remember that our goal in Iraq is not merely to rid the world of the menace of Saddam, but to bring stability to the Gulf region. If the United States is not committed to building good government in Iraq, we are liable to be simply substituting one set of problems for another. Democracy in Iraq is not just a nice “bonus” of a war — it is a necessary component of victory.
Daniel Byman is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Kenneth Pollack is director of research at the Saban Center and author of “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.”
A longer version of this article is appearing in the Summer 2003 issue of The Washington Quarterly.