Democracy in Iraq? Yes

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Mr. Safranski is an educational consultant to secondary schools. He frequently writes about the military.

Commentators and activists of the far Left and Right are agitated at the prospect of an American attack on Iraq. This anxiety is for a variety of reasons but for both ends of the political spectrum the idea of an Iraqi democracy emerging from the rubble of Saddam's dictatorship appears to be particularly alarming possibility. The ability of the United States to shepherd a conquered state to democracy is dismissed as a hopeless quagmire by paleo-conservative author Larry Auster who decried " universal democratism " and the folly of trying to liberalize a post-Saddam Iraq. As Auster picturesquely put it, unlike after WWII " Germans do what they are told and Arabs do not; Germans are governable and Arabs are not "

On HNN recently Michael Richards argued that the Japanese experience was essentially unique, Iraqis would see America as a " latter-day imperial power" and that General Tommy Franks would be ill-suited to reprise Douglas MacArthur's role of pro-consul. Juan Cole, while supportive of the concept of democracy in Iraq, listed caveats a hypothetical American occupational military government should follow in fostering Iraqi democracy. A list including acquiescing to "…a party and prime minister" in power that US authorities did not like, even if it favored "Iran and Hizbullah"

Conventional wisdom, to paraphrase John Locke, is often most skeptical of new ideas precisely because they are not already common. I would add that ideas that are counterintuitive, like a tough American military occupation fostering liberal democracy in Iraq, are also viewed with grave suspicion. As much as Mr. Richards cautions us about the limitations of historical analogies, American military occupation or the threat of it has time and again forced authoritarian societies to reform themselves and adopt more liberal values. Whether these projects in " universal democratism" ultimately succeeded often depended on the political will of the American electorate to see them through over a period of years. Where the US government never demanded democratic reforms, as in South Vietnam or disengaged prematurely, construction of liberal democracy failed; when the United States committed itself to implementing systemic changes among conquered peoples, those peoples reaped the benefits of freedom.


The first attempt at democratization through conquest and occupation by the United States Army was in the Deep South in the aftermath of the Civil War. The period of Reconstruction has been thoroughly mythologized in the popular mind by Southern Lost Cause reactionaries and academic Marxists. The resulting composite view tends to be a cartoonish depiction of rapacious Northern capitalists brutalizing Southerners in a fetid orgy of political corruption with little or no thought to the fate of the former slaves. In reality, Radical Republican leaders like Thaddeus Stevens sought far-reaching democratic reforms in the South to integrate Freedmen as full citizens. If they erred it was not in treating the former Confederate states as " conquered provinces" but in being unduly gentle with recalcitrant ex-rebel terrorists.

In Louisiana, for example the Military Reconstruction Act, which barred disloyal ex-Confederate planters from office, resulted in a state legislature with a black majority that had remarkable achievements to its credit.. Led by P.B.S. Pinchback, a wealthy African-American businessman, the state legislature passed a new constitution, established public school systems and the integration of public facilities. Had the North stayed the course of Reconstruction for several generations, the history of race relations in America might have been markedly different. However, failure of will led Northern leaders to allow the undermining of Reconstruction governments by a lack of response to White League terrorism. There were over 700 cases of assassination and political murder in 1868 in Louisiana alone . The de facto abandonment of individual Republican officeholders and voters in the South to campaign of intimidation and violence smoothed the path for the de jure end of Reconstruction in 1877.

President Hayes removed the last Union troops from the Southern States as part of the Compromise of 1877 that gave him the presidency. This freed ex-Confederate Democrats to reestablish their one-party regional authoritarianism based on white supremacy and backed by the threat of mob violence that would target anyone, white or black, who challenged the new status quo.. Moving quickly to establish legal racial segregation the Democratic Party prevented the emergence of real democracy in the South for almost eighty years, incidentally condemning the region to economic backwardness as well.


Germany provides a second example to illustrate the value of American engagement in fostering democracy. In reaction to Wilson's Fourteen Points and fearing foreign occupation at the end of World War I, German Social Democrats supported by the Army jettisoned the authoritarian political system of the Wilhelmine empire. The Weimar Republic they created was one of the most liberal democracies in Europe, more so than several of the victors of W.W. I. But Weimar was also extremely fragile, containing large numbers of voters indifferent or hostile to democratic values. Nevertheless, based on the electoral strength of the Social Democrats, a free press and a general war weariness among the German populace, a solid democracy might have taken root had Wilson been able to sustain the policy of American engagement in Europe.

Instead, the actions of the British and the French undercut and discredited democratic leaders in Germany and associated democracy with defeat and humiliation in segments of the German public. Burdensome reparations payments, the war-guilt clause, the reoccupation of the Ruhr, French encouragement of Bavarian separatism chipped away at the stature of the national government in Berlin and provided recruits for the extremist Communist and Nazi parties. It is no accident that Weimar Germany's most successful period coincided with the implementation of the Dawes Plan, which stabilized the European economy and helped settle the balance of payments problem. Perhaps had America been a steady counterbalance to punitive French policies, Germany might have been integrated into a democratic Europe decades earlier, saving us from World War II entirely. Weimar leaders might have had the will and popular support to face down Brown shirt and Communist armies of street toughs warring in the streets during the Depression.

In reconstructing Europe and Japan after the war the Roosevelt and Truman administrations acted decisively to avoid past mistakes. Economic integration and freer trade began with Cordell Hull's tariff reduction policies and the Atlantic Charter agreement, later followed by Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the Marshall Plan and political support for Jean Monnet's Coal and Steel Community. Soviet plans for " deindustrialization " of Germany pushed directly by Stalin or indirectly by the "Morgenthau Plan" of Soviet agent Harry Dexter White were rejected by President Truman.

Nor was there much romanticism about Allied occupation authorities being required to implement democracy instantly in Germany, Italy and Japan. Fascist totalitarian parties were prohibited outright in all three states and war crimes trials punished Nazi and Japanese leaders followed by Denazification proceeding, however unevenly implemented, for smaller fry. American leaders excluded the Soviets completely from any meaningful role in Italy or Japan, hampering NKVD support for local Communist cadres and the US secretly funded broad, centrist democratic parties to strentghen the electoral alternative to Stalin's robotic followers.

While not entirely " fair " to local Communists in the abstract sense, American policy makers realistically took into account that Stalin's followers were not committed to building democracies but to undermining them. American occupation set limits upon local politics until, by 1955, democratic values were strong enough among German and Japanese voters to weather extremist challenges.


If the Bush administration intends to bring democracy to a post-Saddam Iraq it should begin by rejecting the copious bad advice it has been receiving about installing a Hashemite monarchy, strengthening the hand of Iraqi tribal, ethnic and religious leaders or turning over power to Iraqi devotees of Hezbollah. Iraq already has little inherent reason to exist as a unitary state and it's partition is prevented only by the objection of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the State Department's aversion to any changes in international relations that go beyond tinkering at the margins. Empowering local and traditional chieftains might win plaudits from Ahmed Chalabi and academic multiculturalists but to do so runs counter to promoting a stable democratic state and accelerate the political fragmentation of Iraq. Nor should the United States government risk spilling American blood and treasure to establish anti-American, terrorist, Islamist theocracies.

Instead of assuming that Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy, the Bush administration should build upon the secular, literate and westernized Iraqi populace as a base for a new liberal order in the Mideast. The Baath Party has left a legacy of intrigue, conspiracy, coups, assassination and dictatorship. Its members should be banned rom political participation. The 150,000 members of Saddam's security services should be placed into custody and tried where warranted like their Gestapo and Tokka predecessors. They should not be left free to join international terrorists or form Russian-style mafia gangs. Parties advocating Sharia rule should be prohibited as they are in neighboring Turkey and secularism made a basic principle of a new Iraqi constitution. American occupation authorities should invest 5-10 years to build new governmental cadres schooled in democratic politics.

Iraqi oil revenues can be invested in schools, hospitals, infrastructure and small businesses so that Iraq's middle-class acquires a stake in preserving a Western style democracy. In short, a breathing space is required for a large population accustomed to dictatorship and terror to habituate themselves to democratic norms. Parties must be broadly based and appeal to moderates.

America will be going into Iraq for reasons of paramount national interest -- divesting a homicidal dictator of an arsenal of mass-slaughter. However, the world will judge American actions in Iraq not on the stated reasons offered in support of intervention but ultimately upon the result. President Bush must make it clear that we have come to Baghdad not to win an empire but to build a democracy. The best legacy Mr. Bush can leave to history is the idea that when America is forced to fight, our soldiers bring freedom in their wake.

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mark safranski - 3/2/2003

Mr. Auster raises a good point and I will also agree that Wilson's intransigence sank the treaty in the Senate more than the actions of Lodge and Borah. However Roosevelt and Truman had the luxury of strategic position denied to Wilson - the U.S. had become so dominant relative to all the other great powers by the mid-late 1940's that the U.S. commitment to intervention could remain implicit. In reality, regardless of the formal structure of the UN we committed ourselves to " go in " with NATO, the Korean War and a string of Dulles-organized defense pacts.

It may be time to re-think some of these structural commitments as they are a half-century old and we have diverging strategic interests with several of our allies ( most of whom now have the economic strength to defend themselves ).

Lawrence Auster - 2/8/2003

Mark Safranski, after criticizing America's rejection of the League of Nations and its resulting absence from European affairs which he says (and I agree) was probably a factor in Germany's slide into Nazism, says that after World War II "[i]n reconstructing Europe and Japan ... the Roosevelt and Truman administrations acted decisively to avoid past mistakes."

However, one of the mistakes which Roosevelt and Truman avoided, and which Mr. Safranski fails to mention, was to insist, as Wilson had done, that America's League or UN membership obligated it to go to war on behalf of other League or UN members if they were attacked. This of course was the sticking point that Wilson refused to compromise on and that led to the League's being defeated in the U.S. Senate. So, if there is someone to blame for America's absence from Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, it is Wilson himself, whose demands were so extreme and utopian that the American people wisely rejected them.

Eric - 1/31/2003

Dave Livingston, What kind of a history/education level do you have to write this kind of an article?? Are you educated in the Muslim belief system or are you just another American who watchs to much mainstream news?

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/21/2002

Mark, Thanks for the straight response. I did see something encouraging about the US military doing infrastructure repairs in Afghanistan. Roads alone do not make good government (think Autobahn), but they are essential for any sort of economic stability. This is one of the things we should be doing.

You and some others have convinced me that toppling Hussein can be a good cause. The problem I have is that whether it turns out good or bad depends in large measure on the intentions and actions of a highly secretive, and apparently divided, administration.

mark safranski - 11/21/2002

It is my sincere hope that the Bush administration opts for a WWII style occupation and guided transition to a genuine democracy. Things seem to be tilting that way though the State Department and the DoD are not in favor for different reasons. Putting in an Iraqi general as a kinder, gentler strongman would be a mistake even as a short term quick fix. Afghanistan, is a case very much unlike Iraq in that Karzai is the first humane ruler since the monarchy was toppled and the population has a lot farther to go than the Iraqis in terms of adapting to democratic norms and tribalism is the norm. Not impossible - the basic democratic question is " Did the government make life better or worse " - but democracy is a tougher project to build in Kandahar than on the banks of the Euphrates.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/18/2002

I hope Mark Safranski is right.

Unfortunately, there is nothing that has come out of this Bush administration that suggests they want democracy in the Middle East.

Consider present policy in Afghanistan. The Administration promised to help establish a strong Afghanistan. However, if administration actions are to be taken for intent, Bush actually wants a weak state, divided tribally, with most of the tribes dependent on U.S. money.

The sad thing is that the policy might "work," in the sense of eliminating Afghanistan as an Al Qaeda stronghold on the cheap.

And that's how the Bush Administration treats an ally.

Iraq poses a different challenge. It does have a secular tradition, and the Kurdish ethnic enclave would make settling for a weak divided Iraq rather dangerous to US interests.

However, that does not mean that Bush wants democracy, even as a long term goal. My suspicion is that his best-case vision for Iraq is a new dictator, more popular that Saddam, with some credibility with the Kurds, and willing to pursue a few westernizing goal.

Someone very much like the late Shah of Iran, perhaps.

Unless Bush is really willing to have a thoroughgoing occupation for a number of years, the above is probably a best-case scenario.

Mr. Safranski, do you really think that he wants to do that? If not; if he wants a short occupation, what really is possible?

mark safranski - 11/17/2002

I would have to say that while I respect Mr. Livinston's concern for the mistreated Chaldean community of Iraq, many of whom were forced to flee abroad I think he underestimates the resolute secularism of Iraq. Islamism thrives among some Iraqi Shiites because it is a reaction to the targeted oppression from Hussein's regime and sympathy with Iranian co-religionists. Remove Saddam, give them a secular, democratic alternative and Mullah autocracy might look a whole lot less attractive to the residents of Basra. Iranian youth, certainly muslims last time I checked, do not seem enamored of the small Khameini-Rafsanjani-Pasdaran goon squad clique. The Iranian hardliners are tottering like Erich Honecker in East Germany in 1989.

Dave Livingston - 11/16/2002

The notion that Moslem Iraq can become a democracy is a self-deceiving pipe dream.
In the first place, Islam is inherently incompatible with democracy. Islam (Submission)demands total submission to the
will of Allah as interpretated by Moslem clerics. This is why the sole primarily Moslem populated nation that practices representative government, Turkey, has refused to use Islam as its template for the organization of its secular society (Yes, Indonesia is attempting the democratic experiment, but so far without Turkey's success). Indeed,in Turkey the weekend does not include the Moslem holy day of the week, Friday, but rather is Saturday & Sunday, staying in step with the nations of the EU.
Democracy is a reflection of Western secularism, itself a religion. It is a religion that is not necessarily suitable for the organization of non-Western societies.
Westerners push democracy because it is good for business and business is good for the West.
To attempt to impose democracy upon Iraq may destroy Islam within Iraq, which is fine with me because my sympathies lie with that 1% of Iraqis who are Christian, Chaldean rite Catholics (Tariq Aziz, the former foreign Minister of Iraq, is a Catholic).
How can there be Catholics in Iraq? When Peter, Andrew & Paul went evangelizing west into the Roman Empire, the Apostles Thomas (Yes, ole Doubting Thomas), Jude and Bartholomew went evangelizing to the east (Philip went evangelizing to the north but oddly had his greatest, most long-lasting success in Axum). They, Thomas, Jude & Bartholomew, were singularly successful. This is illustrated by Armenia, which via the Armenian Apostolic Church having remained Christian these past two thousand years AND as is little known when Vasco de Gama sailed around Cape Horn & thence across the Indian Ocean he had on board representatives from the Pope to the Malabarese, the Christians of the Malabar Coast of India, whom it was anticipated de Gama would, as indeed happened, encounter.
The reason it was no surprise to find tens of thousands of Christians on the west coast, the Malabar Coast, of India was because the Vatican had been in hit & miss contact with them via the land route from perhaps the mid-4th Century until the line of communications was cut by the rise of militant Islam in the 7th Century.
The mortal remains of the Apostle Thomas are buried under the high altar of a cathedral near Madras, India (on the east coast of India. He kept on evangelizing until murdered for his efforts). Today's three million plus Malabarese Catholics of southern India whose ancestors were converted to Christianity by St. Thomas have the same sacraments as the Church universal. They baptize by immerson in what look like giant birdbaths. There are Cardinals in the College of Cardinals from Malabar who wear as part of their liturgical dress turbans in lieu of the European miter.
The largest Chaldean rite Catholic community outside of Iraq is in Chicago, Ill.
There are despite severe suppression surviving even today 21,000 Catholics in Iran, Christians who trace their ancestry to the evangelizing of St. Thomas.

Peter Principle - 11/12/2002

If we had a president who had a clue about long run American interests in promoting democracy within the Mideast, he would not have wimped on confronting Likud's plans for ethnic cleansing the Palestinians or insulted pro-democratic forces in Iran by lumping them together with the repressive mullahs and THEIR arch-enemy Saddam in an "axis of evil".

Can a second-rate baseball club owner become a statesman through on-the-job training ? We already have a test case in Afghanistan, and the verdict remains unknown.