Time to give democracy a chance in Iraq
By Husain Haqqani
Global Beat Syndicate
BOSTON--Just as terrorist insurgents failed to stop Iraq's elections, the election is unlikely to stop the insurgency. But the massive turnout for the Iraqi poll established decisively that the insurgents do not speak for the overwhelming majority of Iraq's Muslims. Now, if the United States acts sensibly, the terrorist minority can be isolated from the broad mass of Iraq's people.
But the vote in Iraq was a vote for Iraqi democracy, not for U.S. military occupation. President Bush now has the opportunity to prove to his critics that the U.S. commitment to democracy and not the need for occupying Iraq is the determining factor in U.S. policy.
Once before, in Vietnam in 1967, the United States and its local allies squandered an opportunity to build upon the holding of successful elections. Then, the Vietcong failed to prevent a high turnout in presidential polls in South Vietnam. But unlike Iraq, where the transitional national assembly will consist of popular clerics, tribal chiefs and local politicians, South Vietnam's elected president and vice-president/premier were American-backed generals. Nguyen Van Thieu and General Nguyen Cao Ky did not address the issues of concern to their people. The corrupt Vietnamese security apparatus became addicted to U.S. aid and President Lyndon Johnson's desire for decisive victory sucked America deeper into Vietnam's quagmire.
Hopefully, wiser from the lessons of its earlier interventions elsewhere, Washington will not make similar mistakes in Iraq. Instead of imposing a strongman of its choice, the United States should allow the elected Iraqi assembly to throw up leaders on its own. The normal give and take of politics, negotiated by Iraqis, should determine Iraq's future leadership. The Bush administration should work out an exit strategy for its troops after training Iraq's security forces. The hardcore terrorists will have to be defeated militarily, but U.S. military withdrawal might deprive extremists from new recruits to their cause.
Despite the apparent success of Iraq's elections, there is much that can go wrong there. The United States could try to micromanage Iraq's political process, thereby creating a wedge between itself and the newly elected leaders. The new (and old) breed of Iraqi politicians could pursue ethnic, sectarian and communal interests at the expense of consensus and accommodation. This could lead to a deadlock in constitution-making. Demands for security could be used by Americans or Iraqis to curtail Iraq's relatively new freedoms.
If Iraq is to become a beacon for freedom and democracy in the Middle East, these potential pitfalls must be avoided. What must also be avoided is America's temptation to prefer generals and technocrats over popular politicians--a phenomenon that has resulted in the poor record of democracy in the region from Morocco to Pakistan.
Every democracy in the world has gone through--and continues to go through--ups and downs. But in several Muslim countries the Westernized elite comprising military officers, corporate executives, civil servants and international bankers has used the rough patches of evolving democracy as justification for semi-authoritarianism.
In Iran, the oil policies of the elected Mossadegh government were labeled as creeping communism and led to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that gave absolute power to the Shah until Iran's 1979 revolution. In Algeria, the first-round victory of Islamists in the 1991 parliamentary polls was used to argue that the country would be better off under brutal military rule than under a theocracy. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak refuses to allow democracy on strategic grounds.
Pakistan's generals have periodically intervened, ostensibly to save their nation from the corruption and ineptitude of elected politicians. Pakistani technocrats, often influential because of their ties to the international financial institutions, provide justification for military intervention by exaggerating the corruption and alleged mismanagement of civilian politicians. Washington has often accepted these myriad arguments and backed authoritarian Muslim leaders. Efficient government has often been preferred over representative government.
If America's project of a democratic Iraq is to succeed, the United States will have to set aside its tradition of denigrating flawed democrats and backing efficient dictators. Ideally, democratic governments must also be made efficient and corruption-free. Technocrats must be able to work alongside politicians to provide good governance. But until that ideal is attained, democracy must be allowed to run its course.