One Election a Democracy Does Not Make


Marina Ottaway has just published her interesting take on the recent Iraq elections, which she argues are an auspicious start to democracy-building but are not enough in and of themselves.
From her paper:
The elections were a success, but they do not ensure that Iraqis can now agree on a constitutional formula that accommodates the demands of all groups and keeps the country together.
Democracy as separation of powers, checks and balances, and protection of individual rights has not proven enough to avoid conflict in other deeply divided societies. Iraqis will have to confront their differences and negotiate a solution.
If they fail, the United States will be faced with a choice of whether to keep the country together by force or get out — and it is better to find out sooner rather than later.

This last section runs parallel with Brent Scowcroft’s admonition in early January that we may be “seeing incipient civil war at this time” in Iraq. Democracies aren’t instantly hatched and require serious institution-building. Ottaway is right that without the Sunnis formally engaged in the early birth of this so-called democracy in Iraq, the nation remains fragile to revolution and civil strife.
America’s choice, as Ottaway puts it, will be to enforce the peace or get out.
Enforcing the peace, though, may require a level of brutality and thuggery that we can hardly imagine in America — and which would clearly violate the most cherished principles of individual rights and freedoms that our country embraces and prosletyzes about. (Of course, many will argue that we have already seen erosion of American rights because of the Patriot Act — and Abu Ghraib is evidence enough of our disdain for the rights of others. Those critics have a point.)
But I mean something bigger. While many in this country were comparing Saddam Hussein to Stalin, I found another comparison to be Tito or Suharto, both of whom have been treated better by history than they probably deserve.
Tito brutally suppressed ethnic tensions and forced those of contending ethnic backgrounds to work and live together in a state that functioned as long as he was there as the pressure valve. When he died, the place simmered and then blew up.
Suharto did much the same, telling his people, essentially, everyone can have his own religion but take it too seriously and he or she will be shot. Chalmers Johnson once remarked that “Indonesian Muslims,” during Suharto’s time, “wore their religion lightly — sort of like Italians where their Catholicism.” I think that this has changed in Indonesia — but it does not detract from the point that Suharto tamed the centripetal forces in his country with thuggery and strong-arm tactics as well.
There needs to be a “Team B” process in place now that lays out what America will do if the Iraq government experiment blows up. I hope it doesn’t, but still we need to think through proactively whether American and allied forces are willing to apply anywhere near the degree of pressure to hold the Iraqi state together that Hussein applied.
I don’t think we are — but it’s something we have to consider if the next steps Marina Ottaway outlines aren’t taken.
— Steve Clemons