Charles Krauthammer has an intriguing and challenging article on the future of democracy in Iraq. He argues that all the concerns about what America should do in Iraq mask the real issues: that Iraqi democracy is faltering from within rather than from without:
The problem is not, as we endlessly argue about, the number of American troops. Or of Iraqi troops. The problem is the allegiance of the Iraqi troops. Some serve the abstraction called Iraq. But many swear fealty to political parties, religious sects or militia leaders.
Are the Arabs intrinsically incapable of democracy, as the “realists” imply? True, there are political, historical, even religious reasons why Arabs are less prepared for democracy than, say, East Asians and Latin Americans who successfully democratized over the last several decades. But the problem here is Iraq’s particular political culture, raped and ruined by 30 years of Saddam’s totalitarianism.
What was left in its wake was a social desert, a dearth of the trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance. All that was left for the individual Iraqi to attach himself to was the mosque or clan or militia. At this earliest stage of democratic development, Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too undeveloped to produce an effective government enjoying broad allegiance.
Krauthammer is right here — it’s racist to argue that Arabs are somehow incapable of acting in a democratic fashion. However, it is true that Iraq’s civil society has been destroyed under three decades of Ba’athist oppression. Democracy cannot survive without a foundation, and that foundation is a vigorous civil society. Iraq under Saddam current met many of the seven factors that lead to failed states, and arguably Iraq currently meets all seven.
Iraq has the trappings of democracy, but it hasn’t developed a working democracy yet. The problem is that while it is possible to impose the trappings of democracy, civil society takes years to develop. Iraq hangs in the balance because the dominant organization unit in Iraqi society is still the clan. In order for Iraqi democracy to succeed, there has to be some unifying principles which keeps the state coherent. Under Prime Minister al-Maliki, that hasn’t happened. Instead, Iraq’s government has become as sectarian as the rest of Iraqi society.
Ultimately, we can keep order, but we can’t heal these rifts. That is a task up to the Iraqi people, many of whom are justifiably sick and tired of the constant violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Krauthammer believes that the Shi’ite coalition that has kept power is fracturing. I think he’s right. The internal divisions between the various Shi’ite sects have grown deeper in the last few months, to the point where al-Sadr’s gang of thugs and other Shi’ite groups are engaging in fights with each other. There are centuries of bad blood in Iraq, and that isn’t likely to disappear overnight.
Ultimately I still believe that Iraq can become democratic, but that process will take years. That was my belief from the beginning of the war. We can’t expect for Iraq to turn into Switzerland in three years — it is a process that could take three generations, with periods of bloodshed in between. Democratization isn’t something that can happen on a timetable, nor is it an easy or inexpensive process.
In the meantime our moral obligation to the people of Iraq and our strategic obligation to fight this war remain unchanged. Controlling the situation in Iraq is vital to our security until such time as the Iraqis are capable of taking the initiative. That can’t happen until security is restored, and ultimately security is retarding the development of both the democratic process and Iraqi civil society. Iraqi democracy hangs by a thread, but that doesn’t in any way justify us letting in fall.