Iraq's Democratic Revolution
By LARRY DIAMOND
Out of the ruins of one of the world's worst tyrannies, in an
ancient land that has rarely known decent governance, a democracy is struggling
to be born.
Iraq is one of the world's least likely sites for a transition to democracy.
Virtually all of the classic preconditions for liberal government are lacking.
And yet, with its decades-long despotism shattered, Iraq is now better
positioned than any of its Arab neighbors to become a democracy in the next few
years. That achievement, however tentative and imperfect, would ignite mounting
aspirations for democratization from Iran to Morocco.
On the ground in Iraq, the picture is quite different from the news we see at
home. Yes, there are bloody acts of terrorism every few days. But it is not
Iraqis who are staging the suicide bombings. Increasingly, Iraqis are fed up
with this violence and turning in the criminals who are waging it. The dwindling
ranks of saboteurs and dead-enders, in cahoots with al Qaeda and other jihadists,
can blow up buildings and kill people. But they cannot rally Iraqis to any
alternative political vision. They can only win if we walk away and hand them
victory. Fortunately (for now), the administration, Congress, the American
people, and key elements of the international community are not wavering. They
are supporting an ambitious agenda for democratic transformation and
Led by liberal-minded Iraqi drafters designated by the Iraqi Governing Council,
work is nearing completion on a Transitional Administrative Law that will
structure government and guarantee rights from the transfer of sovereignty on
June 30 to the seating of a democratically elected government under a new
constitution. With its provisions for civil liberties, due process, separation
of powers, devolution of power and other checks and balances, this will be the
most liberal basic governance document anywhere in the Arab world.
Civil society is springing up. Associations of women, students, professionals,
journalists, human-rights activists and civic educators, along with independent
think-tanks, are building organizations, holding conferences and crafting the
grant proposals that will enable them to work for democracy on a larger scale.
In one university, a team of eight translators is at work full time translating
works on democracy into Arabic.
Iraqi women -- organized in part into an Iraqi Higher Women's Council -- have
come together rapidly across ethnic, regional and ideological lines to craft an
impressive agenda for political inclusion and empowerment of women. Some new
civic associations -- including a gifted group of democratically minded young
people with skills in the visual arts -- are helping the Coalition Provisional
Authority to produce an ambitious civic education campaign. Once each week, for
the next several months, this campaign will distribute throughout Iraq a million
leaflets, each batch explaining in simple terms a different concept of
democracy: human rights, the rule of law, free and fair elections,
participation, accountability, transparency, minority rights and so on. These
will be reinforced with similar messages on radio and television.
Iraqi democrats of all ages believe passionately in the need to educate for
democracy, from both secular and religious perspectives. They stress that
democracy cannot be secure until "we get rid of the little Saddam in each of our
minds." Hundreds of Iraqis are now being trained to facilitate "democracy
dialogues" that will bring Iraqis together to talk about (and practice) these
concepts of democracy. During the next year and a half, these town hall meetings
will also provide a forum for Iraqis to participate in the drafting of their
Over the next few months, Iraq will witness the most intensive flow of economic
reconstruction and democracy-building assistance of any country since the
immediate aftermath of World War II. New construction alone will dramatically
reduce unemployment. Before long, a new Iraqi electoral administration will
begin preparing the country for its first free and fair elections. And Iraqi
political parties will receive training in democratic organization, recruitment,
communication and campaigning.
The quest for a decent and democratic political order could founder on the
shoals of intolerant, exclusivist identities. But recent developments generate
cause for hope. In the negotiations on the transitional law, contending groups
are working hard with one another (and with the CPA) to find formulae that will
manage their differences and give each section of Iraq a stake in the new
system. Public opinion polls show that almost half of Iraq's Muslims identify
themselves not as "Sunni" or "Shia" but as "just Muslim." Fewer than one in five
favor a party ideology that is "hardline Muslim."
Political leaders are beginning to reach out across traditional divides. A
leading moderate Shiite Islamist on the Governing Council, Mowaffak al-Rubaie,
recently delivered an eloquent public endorsement of a federal system for Iraq.
Denouncing the long history of oppression of the Kurds, as well as other
peoples, he declared, "Centralization is the source of our division. Either we
engage in a bitter conflict over power or we devolve power to the fringes of
* * *
One of the most serious problems has been the deadlock over the
Nov. 15 plan for indirect elections (caucuses) to choose a Transitional National
Assembly (TNA). Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and most of his devoted Shiite
followers have instead demanded direct elections before the handover of power on
June 30. However, with the recent U.N. fact-finding mission to Iraq, led by
Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, a compromise resolution now seems
imminent: direct elections for a TNA, but only by a timetable that would enable
the country to attain the minimum administrative, security, technical and
political conditions necessary for free and fair elections. Most experts think
it will take at least nine to 12 months to prepare elections that will not be
perfect but at least, in Mr. Brahimi's words, "reasonably credible."
It is going to take a lot longer than a year to build democracy in Iraq. Even
after a new government is elected under a permanent constitution, the country
will need extensive international assistance for many years to come to
strengthen central and local government capacity, support civil society, and
help fight crime, corruption, and terrorism.
Americans are not generally a patient people. We stayed the course to victory
for four decades during the Cold War, but when it comes to nation-building, our
impulse is to get in and get out quickly. That will not work in Iraq.
A democracy can be built in Iraq. No one who engages the new panoply of
associations and parties can fail to recognize the democratic pulse and
possibilities. But these new institutions and ways of thinking will only take
root slowly. In the early years, they will be highly vulnerable to sabotage from
within and without. The overriding question confronting the U.S. -- as the
inevitable leader of a supporting coalition for democracy -- is whether we have
the vision and the backbone to see this through.
A failed transition in Iraq will not see the country slip back into any kind of
"ordinary" Arab dictatorship. The power vacuum in the country is too thorough,
and the well of accumulated grievances too deep, to allow for that. If we
withdraw prematurely and this experiment fails, religious militants, political
extremists, external terrorists, party militias, criminal thugs, diehard
Baathists and neighboring autocracies will all rush in to fill the void. Iraq
could then become a new base for international terrorism -- Afghanistan with oil
-- or fall victim to a regionally driven civil war, a hellish combination of
Lebanon and the Congo. Any such scenario would suck the hope for democratic
progress in the Middle East into its destabilizing vortex.
The thugs and terrorists are betting that if they generate enough terror and
kill enough Americans, we will cut and run, as in Lebanon and Somalia. This is
the one thing that Iraqi democrats fear more than anything else. I have
repeatedly assured them, from my own conviction, that we will not abandon them.
I hope I will not be proven wrong. Nothing in this decade will so test our
purpose and fiber as a nation, and our ability to change the world for the
better, as our willingness to stand with the people of Iraq over the long haul
as they build a free country.
Mr. Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and
co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, is an adviser to the Coalition
Provisional Authority in Baghdad.