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...But Don't Bet on it Establishing Democracy

George E. Bisharat

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Among the justifications President Bush is offering for invading Iraq is the need to install a democratic Iraqi government. Don’t bet on it happening. Apart from the inherent contradiction in establishing democracy at the point of a gun, there is ample reason to be skeptical of this claim. The U.S. Middle East alliance system leans heavily on monarchs, sheikhs and dictators. The CIA has backed numerous coups against democratic governments, most notably against legally elected Prime Minister Mossadeq in Iran in 1953. Currently, we are seeking to depose Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who won 88 per cent of the vote in the freest elections witnessed in the region in the last decade. Thus, supporting Iraqi democracy would run completely counter to our tradition.


One of the groups that has been active in the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition seeks restoration of the Hashemite monarchy, swept away in the first republican coup in Iraq in 1958—hardly a democratic goal. Of those touted over the last year to head an Iraqi government, one, former general Nizar al-Khazraji, has been implicated in the gassings of Kurds in 1988, and is now under house arrest in Denmark. Another, Ahmad Chalabi, was convicted on bank fraud charges in Jordan and fled that country in the trunk of a car.


Nor is it clear that the neo-conservatives running Bush administration foreign policy will be ready to accept the kind of democracy envisioned by Iraqis themselves. Four points of potential divergence seem likely:

First, democracy, to the Bush “neo-cons,” means elections, the rule of law and free enterprise. To the Iraqis, this might look like a formula for neocolonialism—local elites, protected by a government and legal system, “freely” engaging in commercial deals with international corporations to their individual enrichment. Given past history and ideology, Iraqis might prefer a command economy and welfare state, privileging economic and social rights over civil and political rights—the latter being seen as a luxury for more stable conditions and more prosperous states. Whether the neo-cons will be amenable to such a version of Iraqi democracy is doubtful. We know what to call a “democracy” that is not of the choosing of the governed.


Second, an Iraqi democracy that is genuinely representative of the country’s population will be dominated by the majority Shia Muslims. Ideologically, such a government may be more closely aligned to Iran than to the United States. What will happen, then, when a democratically elected Shia Iraqi government politely but firmly asks U.S./coalition troops to leave? Any refusal would reveal the lie, while any agreement would open the door for increased Iranian influence. There may be less to fear in that than we imagine, but one does not imagine the neo-cons viewing this all with equanimity. In their view, Iran is the most consequential country in the area.


Third, Iraqi democracy must come to some accommodation with the legitimate aspirations of the long-suffering, and long-exploited, Kurdish people. Torn by infighting, their precise goals have not always been clear. But at a minimum, they will demand some form of autonomy within Iraq. Turkey—which has violently opposed Kurdish autonomy anywhere, out of fears of heightened demands from its own Kurdish minority—will be incensed. How will the Bush neo-cons, for whom Turkey ranks second only to Israel in regional strategic importance, finesse this clash between the demands of Iraqi democracy and a valued strategic ally?


Finally, any Iraqi democracy accurately reflecting the sentiments of the Iraqi people will be more resolutely pro-Palestinian than the regime of Saddam Hussein. This does not mean a democratic Iraqi government will effectively aid the Palestinians in their struggle with Israel in the short term. But there is deep and abiding sympathy for the Palestinians throughout the Arab world, and a specific Iraqi-Palestinian solidarity that derives from a sense of common victimhood at the hands of Israel and the United States. Quite apart from these emotional ties, there is very little in U.S.-Israeli hegemony over the region that is favorable to the national interests of Iraq, as these are likely to be defined by Iraqi leaders. None of these facts jibe well with the commitments of the “Israelocentric” Bush neo-cons.

Iraqi democracy under the aegis of a postwar, American-supervised occupation seems far less likely than a puppet regime pliable to U.S. direction, like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. An illegitimate government will not be able to govern a fractious country without outside help. Maintaining a pro-American Iraqi government over the long haul will require years of direct U.S. military and political involvement. That is a project in colonialism, not democracy.

Published Wednesday, March 5th, 2003 - 04:23pm GMT

George E. Bisharat is professor of law at Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco, where he teaches a course on law in the Middle East.

The Boston Globe

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