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Thursday, June 05, 2003
Democracy in Iraq?
The short answer is "not likely."
The long answer is that democracy is the worst form of government, except for everything else that has been tried, as Churchill said. This implies that many other forms of government will be tried first, and this is usually the case. Consider France, which has gone through two monarchies, two empires, five republics, one commune, and countless failed uprisings since the US established its constitution. Sure, we had a civil war to tie up the loose ends, but nothing like the Reign of Terror, the Vendee massacres, Napoleon's police state, or Vichy. Even now, their acceptance of democracy is so grudging that they are eager to give it up to a European super-state, and their contempt for the bourgeois values that maintain democracy is well known.

Iraqis are likely to take the wrong lesson from Saddam. Instead of concluding that a concentration of power is dangerous, they are likely to think that the problem was the concentration of power in the wrong hands. They will therefor look for the right man in whom to invest power. They will look for a virtuous man -- or a convincing counterfeit. Right now, Iraqis are demonstrating against the US occupiers, demanding withdrawal, demanding restoration of utilities, demanding suppression of banditry -- demanding, in effect, the imposition of the reign of virtue. They want someone to do something for them, and the sooner the better. The chanting and fist-waving are on TV every night. What I don't see is Iraqis organizing library committees, holding PTO bake sales, or joining a volunteer fire department. They are not doing much for themselves; instead, they want someone to do things for them. They are, in effect, clients in search of a patron. If you want someone to put things right and take care of you, if you will not expend effort voluntarily for the good of the community, you will not get democracy.

I live in Massachusetts. We still have a town meeting, and every time I go to one, I wonder how the institution has lasted some 300 years. There is a Norman Rockwell illustration of a stalwart fellow standing up in the town meeting, unloading some plain homespun wisdom, oblivious of the admiring gazes of his wife, his neighbors, and his parents. A more honest picture would show people rolling their eyes and pondering a bathroom break as one of the notorious cranks stands up to mount his hobbyhorse for a good 15 minutes. Picture a crowd of Iraqis limiting their display of annoyance and disagreement to mere ocular calisthenics. Democracy is not just the freedom to express your opinion but the duty to let someone else express his, no matter how foolish. If you are unwilling to sit still while someone says stupid things, you will not get democracy.

The idea of a loyal opposition is foreign to the Arab world. Under Saddam, of course, dissent was fatal, but an opponent is an enemy to more Arabs than Saddam. Kinship, clan, tribe, ethnic group, and religion all have claims on Iraqis' loyalties and form the basis of the opposing groups now seeking power. These groupings are permanent and not amenable to compromise. Because they form the basis of the distribution of rights and favors, the success of one means the failure of another. In the US, our Civil War was provoked by the irreconcilable differences over slavery and the unwillingness of one faction to abide by the results of an election in which they were free and full participants. If you will not accept a political loss, or if you fear for your property, rights, and safety as the result of one, you will not have a democracy.

More bloviation to follow, but I need to get some work done.
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