Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Iraq, With a Twist of Democracy

In a few short weeks the great democratic experiment in Iraq will commence. Yes, the insurgency rages on and yes, the security situation remains dubious. And let's not forget that various factions within Iraq have yet to completely embrace the electoral process as currently defined. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes you democratize the nation you conquered, not the nation that you wish you had conquered. In reality, I seriously doubt that any circumstances on the ground would derail the process; the train left the station on this issue months ago. As the last (or, at least, the latest) justification for our incursion into Iraq, the establishment of a Middle Eastern democracy must proceed. Without it people will again begin to wonder what all this was for.

Thus, elections will be held. Personally, I expect them to be largely successful. That's not to say that there won't be serious problems in execution. However, I feel that the overarching goal will be achieved: representatives will be chosen by the people and their selections will have enough credibility to begin the process of governance. Throughout history elections have been successfully held in conflict ridden environments. It's not ideal, but it does happen. Moreover, elections that are "good enough" are usually better than no elections at all. If we were to wait for the situation in Iraq to completely stabilize before proceeding, "no elections at all" might be the ultimate result. That is an outcome that I do not believe we can afford.

So -- let's have those elections. I'm glad that's settled.

But before we get too busy patting ourselves on the back, I think we should take a moment to assess what the completion of a single election cycle really means to the long-term situation in Iraq. Most importantly, we should be wondering whether or not the democracy that we have created there will stick.

When most of us think about democracy, we envision a system where the citizens collectively determine the composition and function of government. We contrast it against systems that deny the citizenry that power, reserving it for a select few. As we become more sophisticated in our discussions, we note that systemic modifications are required to prevent hazards inherent in purely democratic systems. Concepts such as federalism, constitutional limitations of power, and the like often arise as we attempt to describe democracy in action.

Does this adequately define democracy? Well, it's an excellent start. However, it remains incomplete in a very important way. The preceding paragraph focuses exclusively on democracy as a process. And while it is undeniable that process is an essential component of any democratic government, what about culture? Isn't cultural acceptance of the aforementioned process also essential to the functioning of any democratic society?

Actually, this cultural acceptance is crucial to any form of government. Even small limitations in this acceptance quickly require the application of force to keep the population in line. While that might be par for the course within dictatorial regimes, democracies are literally undone by it. Democracy compelled by force is, by definition, no democracy at all.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I pose the following question: is the Iraqi population culturally prepared to accept democratic process as legitimate?

Many would prefer to avoid discussing this issue. To keep the topic off the table, those who raise it are often tarred as racists. This is a ridiculous distraction and should not be taken seriously. The reality is that government, any government, must reflect the culture of the governed. It cannot succeed otherwise. Just imagine if we attempted to implant a foreign system of democracy here. Would the democracies of England, Germany, Holland, or India successfully transfer to our shores? What about the American democracy of 1789? If not, is it racist to suggest that cultural incongruence would explain its failure?

No. It isn't.

Democracy isn't a panacea. It isn't something that we all innately strive for. It is a system that has had a fair degree of success in justly managing the affairs of large societies. And for that reason it is wise that we promote it around the world. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It must be applied in a manner appropriate to the culture it will govern. Only then will it provide safety and stability to its citizens. Only then will it live up to the ideal.

I don't know what will happen in Iraq in the years to come. Perhaps the democracy that we establish there will be accepted by the masses. If not, perhaps it will evolve peacefully into a system that works for the Iraqi people. It could work -- and I hope it does. But, it will be years before we know for sure. The questions don't end on January 30. That's where they begin.
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