Home / Articles / What the U.S. Needs to Promote in Iraq (Hint: It’s Not Democratization per se)
A Reason to Get Up in the Morning
After the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived us of our enemy (in Colin Powell’s words), veteran defense officials and intellectuals confessed to a certain nostalgia for the Cold War. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet and related Communist threats world-wide gave them “a reason to get up in the morning.” During the 1990s, by contrast, the coterie one might dub the neo-conservative “war party” were out of a job both literally (during Bill Clinton’s two terms) and figuratively (since globalization and the Information Revolution allegedly made geopolitical conflict obsolete). So it was that strategists such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith, and journalistic cheerleaders such as William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Fred Barnes spent the Clinton years exhorting Americans to eschew complacency in world affairs and instead seize the “unipolar moment” to impose a “benevolent hegemony” on the whole world and pari passu “remoralize” American society at home. They invoked Ronald Reagan, insisting that the United States still had a mission and destiny to spread democracy and human rights. They invoked Theodore Roosevelt, insisting that the United States must aspire to “national greatness” through moral example and “big stick” diplomacy. They warned against cuts in the defense budget given the certainty of new security threats on the horizon. They fretted over the fate of Israel in a Middle East teeming with Ba’athist and Islamist regimes that patronized terrorist organizations.
But the war party won few converts back in the 1990s. The Clinton Administration remained wedded to “assertive multilateralism” and belated, half-hearted humanitarian interventions on the theory that economic and technological forces would eventually undermine rogue states and authoritarian regimes without the United States having to fight. Most Republicans, meanwhile, spied in the neo-conservatives’ “benevolent hegemony” a more militant, arrogant version of Clintonism: a sort of Wilsonianism with guns aimed not only at making the world safe for democracy, but making the world democratic!
The election of George W. Bush gave the war party no more than a foot in the door, if that. The new president promised restraint, even humility, in foreign affairs, while expressing skepticism about state-building and nation-building. Secretary of State Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concurred. Only in the Pentagon, to which Wolfowitz and Feith returned in person and Perle in spirit, was a more certain trumpet note sounded. Their master Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had associated himself earlier with the objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But Rumsfeld, like Vice President Richard Cheney, was no neo-con, sporting as he did rock-ribbed Republican credentials over three decades old.
Did this new/old team arrive in Washington, D.C., with a master plan in their pockets to settle accounts with Saddam once and for all, if necessary by unilateral force, and exploit the victory to democratize the whole Muslim crescent? If so, they had little hope of winning over the Bush Administration … until Al Qaeda made their argument for them on 9/11. Bush declared a theoretically limitless war on terrorists everywhere, claimed the right to attack preemptively any state harboring terrorists, sponsoring terrorism, or striving to obtain weapons of mass destruction that might fall into terrorists’ hands. Then he turned the war over to Rumsfeld, who evidently shared Bush’s own conclusion to the effect that regime change, not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, would yield benefits throughout the whole Middle East. Rummy, ever since, has had so much fun waging war—and confounding journalists—he can barely conceal his glee. For all the two or three day media panics over foreign protests, “unexpected” resistance, delays, and failed battle plans, the war has in fact been a triumph unprecedented in history. Never have offensive military operations achieved so much, so quickly, so far away, and so cheaply in terms of both casualties and money. Shock and awe? Those most shocked and in awe are the American politicians and pundits who warned of bloodbaths, quagmires, lost legions, and bridges too far.
How did this occupation of Baghdad and American mission to reinvent Mideast politics come to pass? Even those of us highly critical of crusading and state-building must grant the origins of this war lie not with the neo-conservative brain trust, or Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, or the oil companies, or the Israel lobby. The fault lies with Saddam Hussein. After the Shah’s regime succumbed to the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran emerged as an Islamic republic pledged to make war on the Great Satan (United States), Saddam Hussein stood to inherit the franchise as America’s primary partner in Gulf security and the global oil market. It was as if he had been offered the newest and biggest McDonald’s franchise at the prime location in the wealthiest part of town. All he had to do to receive untold riches for himself and his people and the assurance of U.S. protection was behave himself. But whether through stupidity, megalomania, Hitlerian ambition, Stalinist paranoia, or Ba’athist thuggery, Saddam Hussein threw the franchise away. A sadist at home and aggressor abroad, he forced his own would-be patron, the first President Bush, to make war on him.
Operation Desert Storm should have sufficed to topple Saddam, but did not because the President spurned the risks and responsibilities an occupation of Baghdad would involve. His mistake was not (as some suggest) having too little faith in the Iraqi people’s capacity for self-determination, but rather too much faith. The first Bush Administration expected the Iraqis themselves would topple Saddam while fearing the Kurds and Shi’ites might tear the country apart if given the chance to express themselves. That tragic miscalculation doomed the Kurds and Shi’ites to a bloodbath at the hands of the Ba’athists, doomed all Iraq to another twelve years of terror, and doomed the United States to having to do it all over again in 2003.
How and where does it end? Can the U.S. civil mission, now headed up by veteran diplomat L. Paul Bremer, truly rebuild and remake Iraq into a showpiece of Arab democracy? If so, will the desired “spillover effects” peacefully transform Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine? If not, will General Tommy Franks unleash his combined-arms juggernaut on Iraq’s neighbors as well? Whatever the outcome, it is hard to imagine any exit strategy that would permit a U.S. withdrawal for the foreseeable future. Rumsfeld has already hinted at permanent military bases in the sands of Iraq. Given the scale of the material and political rebuilding task in Iraq, the oil fields in need of policing, the proximity of Iran, and Saudi resentment of U.S. bases in their country, Rumsfeld’s hints are more likely promises. No wonder zealous advocates and critics alike of Bush’s war policies have seized on the words empire, imperial, and crusade to describe America’s posture in the Persian Gulf. And that means our defense intellectuals will have reason to get up in the morning for a very long time to come.
America’s Imperial Moment— Not!
Would that America were the Roman or British Empire. Then all the Bush Administration need do is appoint a proconsul to crush dissent with insouciant brutality (the Romans crucified, the British shot rebels from cannons; both razed ancient temples and palaces), then bestow on the locals all the glories and boons of imperial citizenship. But the United States, though imperial in its sway, can never be an empire of the traditional sort. It is far, far more powerful than any mere empire that ever existed, while at the same time far, far more constrained in its exercise of power than are gangsters such as Saddam Hussein. The constraint is self-imposed, a product of American concepts of justice and human rights. The constraint is also imposed from without (although less so of late), a product of international opinion and pressure. Accordingly, as a consequence of the War on Terror, the Bush Administration finds itself engaged in exactly the sorts of enterprises it foreswore in the months prior to September 11, 2001: state-building and nation-building. Secretary of State Colin Powell put the point neatly on April 22 in a PBS interview. Asked what message the Iraqi war sends, Powell replied: “The message should not be that because we have such military power, it’s going to be used anywhere else in the world we choose to use it. The message should be we have that military power, but we also have economic power, we have political power, we have diplomatic power, we have the power of example. We are using all these elements of national power not to find nations to invade, but to find nations who need our help.”
Americans’ efforts to “help” other nations have often been unhappy experiences. To be sure, from 1776 to 1896 the United States fought wars and expanded almost at will. But Manifest Destiny was governed by the nation’s great federative principle: the Constitution followed the flag and equal citizenship and statehood eventually followed the Constitution. Only in 1898, as a by-product of Operation Cuban Freedom (also known as the Spanish-American War) did Americans get into the risky business of ruling over territories and peoples they had no intention of joining to the Union. To be sure, the imperialist war party of that era was composed of Progressives who believed in “helping people,” whether through government activism and reform at home or U.S. impositions abroad. They expected colonies such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Panama to be uplifted by American officials, educators, engineers, missionaries, and businessmen. They expected failed states in the Caribbean to receive law and order from the hands of U.S. Marines and relearn how to function as stable democratic republics. Woodrow Wilson boasted he would teach the Mexicans “how to elect good men.” None of that happened. Puerto Rico remains to this day a proto-colony and ward of the federal government. Democracy did not take in the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, not to mention Cuba, despite lengthy or repeated American tutelage. They also remain among the poorest societies on earth. Americans, the optimism of the benevolent hegemony advocates notwithstanding, are inept at imperialism, above all by their own standards.
Of course, colonization however disguised is not what the United States means to achieve in Iraq. Rather, we are told, the models relevant to the present task are America’s post-1945 occupations of Japan and Germany, as well as the Marshall Plan. Surely they prove Americans do know how to state-build, reinvent nations, and turn ruin to plenty. But they don’t, at least not to the degree mythology holds. Historical scholarship has now amply demonstrated that every program the Joint Chiefs of Staff established for the “democratization” of German industry, labor relations, and education either failed or were aborted when the Cold War broke out. And despite intense de-Nazification public opinion polls in the late 1940s showed Germans rued the Nazi regime not because of its nature but because Hitler lost the war. Rather, what the Christian Democrat and Social Democrat leaders did was to pick up the threads of democracy woven during the Weimar Republic and restore a Germany that was already there in potential. General Lucius Clay himself reflected that the Cold War threat of Communism, not wise U.S. policy, was what finally made the Germans accept the Occupation regime.
As for the Marshall Plan, economic historians have argued persuasively that while American aid was a boon to Europeans’ morale, it played only a modest role in their “economic miracle.” Over 80 percent of the capital invested in Europe’s recovery, and almost 100 percent of the labor, management, and technical skill was native. As for Japan, the false starts, tergiversation, and reversals during the MacArthur occupation are legendary. By 1950 the Japanese had managed to cancel, evade, or co-opt almost all the U.S.-imposed economic and cultural programs save the pacifist plank in the Constitution, which the Japanese were already inclined to accept. The great postwar Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru later said “the so-called democratic form of government is still in its infancy in my country,” and attributed its birth not to America but to the Taisho Democracy tradition of the 1910’s and 1920’s.
That is not to say America’s postwar policies failed. They clearly did little or no harm while reinforcing Germans and Japanese inclined to promote moderate, parliamentary government. But those occupations provide no template for reinventing a largely pre-industrial, only partially educated, never democratic, heterogeneous Muslim state in the Middle East. That the Bush Administration remains optimistic is laudable; that it is has cause to be optimistic is dubious. What the United States hopes to achieve in Iraq has never been done before. Nor does history provide cause to believe Americans are the people to do it.
Unless, that is, we are prepared to make Iraq our unofficial 51st state, turn its oil fields over to Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum, and (if the French repent) Schlumberger, and then unleash Bechtel Corporation, Donald Trump, Harrah’s, Club Med, Walt Disney’s “imagineers,” and Arnold Palmer. Together they can transform the Fertile Crescent in a matter of months into a 500-mile strip of luxury spas, theme parks, museums, casinos, and golf resorts with names like Adam’s Eden, Daniel’s Den, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Cradle of Civilization, and Hammurabi’s Hangout. Meanwhile, Israeli agronomists and hydraulic engineers turn the desert into the richest farmland in Araby while Hindu and American firms fill Basra and Baghdad with pharmaceutical plants and computer labs. Syrians, Iranis, Saudis, and Palestinians must soon feel the tug and beg for the privilege of salaaming before American CEO’s. But such fantasies aside, we shall doubtless need to figure out ways to get Iraqis do most of the heavy lifting themselves, because only if the Iraqis themselves are seen to provide an example can there be any hope for a spillover effect in Teheran, Damascus, and Riyadh. What are those enabling tasks the U.S. occupation can perform, not as benevolent imperialist or democratic crusader, but simply as a victor in war?
Morning in Mesopotamia: the Ottomans’ Polity, John Marshall’s Economy
It was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, but how does one operationalize freedom? The mantra of the Administration has been democratization, but that has only invited voices of cynicism and wisdom, despair and prudence to list all the reasons why democratization is the riskiest or most utopian goal imaginable. Suffice to say that no democracy, as Westerners understand the concept, has ever existed in the Arab world and only one (Turkey) in the whole Islamic world. Suffice to say Iraqis have been in thrall for 35 years to a Ba’athist party dictatorship, hence asking them to embrace democracy would be like asking the Soviet people to do so at the time of Stalin’s death in 1953. Suffice to say Iraq is no nation, but an artificial construct including mutually hostile Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ites, each divided internally along tribal lines. Suffice to say the groups, both native and exiled, that opposed Saddam’s regime include two Kurdish parties, four Assyrian parties, two Turkomen parties, one Iraqi “alliance”, three all-Iraqi congresses, four Islamist revolutionary groups, two communist parties, and three military officers’ movements. Add to those handicaps the past week’s surprise, to wit the sudden prominence of Shi’ite clerics who have seized in several locales, organized provision of basic services, damned the U.S. occupation, asked “where’s the democracy?” and seemingly curried widespread support. Pessimistic observers immediately asked whether electoral democracy will usher in a theocratic, anti-American government akin to that in neighboring Iran, or else hopeless chaos, or else the dissolution of Iraq as Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds refuse to share any authority with each other?
The doubters’ doubts cannot be ignored and the odds of Iraq becoming a model of peaceful Arab democracy may be long indeed. But the paradox of the situation (something the United States accepted per force in Taiwan and South Korea, but forgot in South Vietnam) is that the best way to build institutions for civil self-government in the long run is to forget about them in the short run. A polity suddenly accorded complete freedom of expression and popular power in the absence of peace, law, order, and opportunity may indeed dissolve into a war of all against all. A polity assured of peace, law and order, opportunity, at least partial freedom of expression, by contrast, stands a good chance of acquiring habits of give and take, compromise, log-rolling, and cooperative human interaction.
The odds of the latter occurring in Iraq are not so long. As Eric Davis, Director of Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, instructs us, Iraq boasted a flourishing civil society under Ottoman Turkish rule, the British mandate after World War I, and the Hashemite monarchy after World War II. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Kurds, Christians, and Jews lived in relative peace and celebrated their common Iraqi citizenship. Together they protested British rule, formed political parties and professional associations, practiced freedom of speech and press, and led the Arab world in many of the arts and sciences. Likewise, far from being fractured, the Tigris and Euphrates basin was united by centuries-old commercial bonds stretching from Mosul to Baghdad to Basra. Only the repressive Ba’athist regimes dating from 1963, 1968, and especially 1979, when Saddam Hussein seized control, sufficed to snuff out the Iraqi people’s proud, creative civil traditions. No doubt many years will be needed to resuscitate what Ba’athism ruined, just as Russians are still recovering from Communism. But resuscitation is bound to occur once Iraqis are given free air to breathe.
To ensure that supply of free, healthy air the U.S., British, and allied authorities must resist the temptation to draft constitutions overnight and hastily install the whole apparatus of national government. They must instead work locally, in each community and in tandem with municipal leaders, to revive law enforcement, utilities, food and fuel distribution, medical care, and schools, while firmly suppressing premature challenges made in the name of “democracy.” Coincident with these tasks are de-Ba’athization, which eighty Iraqi leaders have already endorsed at their initial meeting in Ur, and the establishment of local monopolies of force through disarmament of all persons either suspected of Ba’athist sympathies or armed resistance against coalition forces. Gradually, once most Iraqis understand they need no longer worry about their next meal or the safety of family members, neighborhood, municipal, and regional councils can begin to assume management roles. Next, these local councils can begin to coordinate transport and trade with neighboring councils until, in the fullness of time, they are ready to choose representatives for national councils empowered to fashion central institutions with delimited authority and responsibility.
That, after all, was the way Americans did it themselves. As early as 1759 the thirteen American colonies began to recognize their common identity and interests. But three decades passed before they established a constitutional central government and genuine national unity. They began by establishing local and state governments, then formed a loose alliance under a weak national committee (the Continental Congress), then joined a confederation, then pursued bilateral commercial accords, and finally summoned a Constitutional Convention. But all that activity was only a matter of state-building: yet another four decades passed before the triumph of “Jacksonian democracy” persuaded Americans of their success at nation-building.
Of course, Americans inherited the rich British traditions of Common Law, Whig ideology, the Scottish Enlightenment, and limited parliamentary government. Americans also enjoyed relative immunity from outside perturbations, which afforded the United States the leisure to develop its institutions and habits gradually. Iraq’s traditions are tribal with an Ottoman overlay, and Iraq will enjoy no leisure due to the immediate presence of outside perturbations by dint of a foreign occupation and its own critical role in the global oil market. Hence, some design for living will have to emerge in months or a few years rather than decades. What needs to be done, therefore, is to design, not a straitjacket or elegant tuxedo, but rather a comfortable, loose-fitting coat Iraqis can grow into and re-tailor as needed over time. From what patterns can a comfortable, malleable Iraqi coat be stitched? Two likely patterns, which would mesh nicely together, are the Ottoman Empire’s decentralized polity dating from Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1500’s and the United States’ centralized market designed by Chief Justice John Marshall in the early 1800’s. Persuading, cajoling, and bribing Iraqis to mesh those two patterns would go a long way toward creating the sort of Iraqi national state American interests require. Such a state would display five key features.
First, an Iraqi state compatible with U.S. interests, regional stability, and the Iraqis’ own pursuit of happiness must be coterminous with Iraq’s existing boundaries. It is tempting to exploit the current postwar situation to redraw the “artificial” borders in the Middle East, perhaps even exploit Turkey’s failure to assist the coalition in order to conjure an independent Kurdistan into existence. But to erase the lines in the sand drawn in the Treaty of Sevres (1920) and League of Nations Mandates would not only echo Saddam Hussein’s own denunciations of the region’s “unjust and artificial partition, it would invite an orgy of potentially violent erasures and redrawing of borders throughout the whole region. Give the first President Bush credit for this, at least: he rightly feared the broader consequences of an Iraqi crack-up.
Second, an Iraqi central government compatible with U.S. interests, regional stability, and the Iraqis’ own pursuit of happiness should wield only limited powers over the old Ottoman Empire’s vilayets (provinces) centered on Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Granting generous local self-government to the Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the middle, and Shi’ites in the south would replicate the Ottomans’ wise strategy for holding together a disparate empire by establishing de facto millets, self-governing communities free to live under their traditional customs, laws, and religious authorities. The Iraqi central government, itself a federation with checks and balances, would be responsible only for defense, foreign affairs, and commerce.
Third, an Iraqi government compatible with U.S. interests, regional stability, and the Iraqis’ own pursuit of happiness must be acceptable, if not loved, by a substantial majority of the Iraqi people. If so, the institutions and their personnel would be ipso facto legitimate. Hence, “government by consent of the governed” must be the guiding principle, but that principle need not entail “one man, one vote” all-country elections. Indeed, elections may be the worst way to establish a Iraqi regime’s legitimacy because elections invite all manner of monkey-business. If that is so in American city, state, and national campaigns, how much more might Iraqi elections be sullied by wreckers, demagogues, ideologues, and malcontents eager to rig, defraud, boycott, or damn the outcome of a national vote, not least given the Arab penchant for paranoid fantasies, and not least during a time of foreign military occupation. However a national cabinet, bureaucracy, judiciary, and constabulary are cobbled together, the test of their legitimacy will be no more nor less than whether the great majority of the Iraqi people grant their authority and comply with their rulings. If so, the new state will be stable and capable of liberalization over time. If not, popular elections will only compound the confusion.
Fourth, an Iraq compatible with U.S. interests, regional stability, and its own people’s pursuit of happiness must demonstrate progress toward a rule of law on the provincial and national levels. The rule of law, not democracy, is the true cradle of liberty. We already have reports that many Iraqi police, judges, and lawyers know what it means to be truly professional and yearn for the chance to practice their callings within a predictable system of justice. The laws Iraqis make for themselves may or may not please most Americans, for instance in issues concerning criminal justice or the role of women in society. But whether their laws be secular, Muslim, or a mixture of the two, predictability about civil rights, contracts, and litigation is imperative if Iraq is to become a country foreigners “can do business with.” Here is where John Marshall comes in. His court’s seminal decisions about the balance of powers and rights among individuals, state legislatures, and the central government were designed to impose clear limits on democratic passions. They struck down state laws that violated the rights and powers of individuals, corporations, and the federal government alike, while recognizing limits on federal authority over states and individuals. In so doing, Marshall established both a rule of predictable law and a unified national marketplace in which investment and commerce could burgeon. Marshall’s decisions were by no means “democratic,” imposed as they were from the bench. But they made democratic evolution far more likely. That is why economist D. W. MacKenzie argues that premature democracy in Iraq would probably result in a brokered “transfer economy” in which growth is stifled and riches a matter of political clout, whereas a legal regime ensuring an unfettered national market might, in time, result in democracy.
Fifth and finally, an Iraq acceptable to the United States and conducive to regional stability and its people’s pursuit of happiness requires a Baghdad regime not hostile, at least, to America and its allies. It goes without saying that anything less would betray the coalition’s dead and wounded. But how to ensure Iraqi good will? Given the natural resentment of foreign occupation, given the natural shame of defeat, given the humiliation suffered by a proud Arab state at the hands of Christians and Jews, given Kurdish and Shi’ite rage over the U.S. betrayal of them following the first Gulf War, it would seem a spontaneously “friendly” regime in Baghdad is an impossible dream. Nor are hand-picked collaborators the solution since any such regime would surely violate the third feature noted above: legitimacy. Hence, the toughest assignment of all for U.S. officials would seem to be influencing the new Iraq’s foreign policy: maybe not next year, but five or ten years down the road when military occupation of Iraq and direct control of its oil revenues fade away.
The only long-term means to minimize risks of recidivism in Baghdad are to maintain a strong deterrent force in the region and to ensure large numbers of Iraq’s secular and clerical leaders have a stake in the system. It’s not a matter of winning hearts and minds (something Americans aren’t good at). It’s a matter of buying them off, putting them on the payroll, or cutting them in on a piece of the action (things Americans are very good at). The favored Iraqis, in turn, must be counted on to go forth and do likewise, granting their own domestic factions a piece of the action so people throughout the social pyramid have a stake in the system. That, too, echoes an Ottoman precedent: the mukata’a, or administrative unit in which every office is associated with a source of revenue. Corruption of a sort, it also placed limits on corruption and institutionalized loyalty to the benefit of society at large. Since the primary coins of the realm will be money and guns, the institutions most in need of a stake in the system and patronage along factional lines are the oil ministry and the army. A fair division of petroleum revenue brokered by coalition diplomats should not be hard to achieve. Nor is it impossible to imagine a reconstituted Iraqi military at peace with the new regime. If one parallel does exist between Iraq and occupied Germany and Japan, it is war-weariness, suspicion of elite party units such as Republican Guards, and hatred of conscription designed to turn youths into corpses. So long as coalition forces remain in-country or just over the horizon, Iraq does not need a large army. Nor can the country afford one. Hence, a modest constabulary of non-Ba’athist professionals who know how to stay in their barracks should suffice.
Even in the best of circumstances we cannot expect a sovereign Iraq to be more than a sullen associate of America, Inc. But big sticks, sweet carrots, and liberty under law may keep them from being openly hostile.
Morning in Mesopotamia may never dawn. I remain skeptical of state- and nation-building projects and Operation Iraqi Freedom is the most ambitious yet undertaken. Still, we have no choice now but to hope that the sun will rise in the east, all Araby will bask in its glow, and Iraqis will grasp how fortunate they are that the war Saddam lost was the one against the United States and not the one with Iran.
Frederick D. Barton and Bathsheba Crocker, “Winning the Peace in Iraq,” The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2003.
David M. Shribman, “The Great Challenge Ahead: To Remake Iraq,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 9, 2003.
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