Building Democracy

Thomas Friedman has an excellent piece on the successes of nation building in Iraq and why the option of rapidly transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis is a bad idea:

Would the U.S. handing power to an interim Iraqi government really stop the attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi police, the U.N. and Iraq’s interim leaders? I doubt it. These attackers don’t want Iraqis to rule themselves, these attackers want to rule Iraqis. Why do you think the attackers never identify themselves or their politics? Because they are largely diehard Baathists who want to restore the old order they dominated and will kill anyone in the way. Will the U.N., which has basically left Iraq, not flee again when its officials get attacked again — which will happen even after Iraqis have sovereignty? Could the Iraqi Governing Council agree now on who should lead an interim government? Will the Europeans really pony up troops and billions of dollars for Iraq, if the U.S. hands the keys to an Iraqi interim government? Will the U.S. public want to stay involved then, as is needed?

Until we are sure these questions can be answered, without Iraq spinning out of control, I’d stick with the status quo as the least bad option — in part because genuine sovereignty means running your own affairs and the U.S. has already done more to build that at the grass roots than most people realize.

Friedman goes on to give examples of such grass-roots democratic organization:

I spoke the other day with Amal Rassam, an Iraqi-American anthropologist, who has been spearheading this effort. Since April, U.S. Army officers and Ms. Rassam’s teams from RTI International, an NGO, have gone out to all 88 neighborhoods of Baghdad, met with local leaders and helped them organize, through informal voting, 88 “interim advisory councils.” Then the 88 councils elected nine district councils, and the nine district councils elected an interim 37-member Baghdad city council. For the first time ever, a popularly based city council, including women, is demanding to set budgets, set priorities and decide who will police their neighborhoods, and is making the city’s managers accountable to them.

Similar town councils have been set up all over Iraq. U.S. and British teams have been schooling the Iraqi councils in how to hold a meeting, set an agenda, take a vote and lobby. They have also provided seed money for women’s groups and all sorts of other civil society organizations that Iraqis are scrambling to start. They have not unearthed any W.M.D., but they have unearthed a lot of aspiring Iraqi democrats.

Indeed, civil society is the foundation on which democracy rests. You can’t have Congresses and Parliaments unless you have democratic and vibrant school boards, city councils, and local leaders. Those small units of government are crucial to having a system in which power is diffused as a crucial bulwark against centralized tyranny. In Iraq today, those efforts are already well underway and have already begun to bear fruit throughout the country.

Iraq is on its way to democracy. It is a slow and difficult process, and there will be setbacks, but the rewards more than justify the risks.

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