Those of us working overseas promoting democracy would periodically get together at conferences and say that, if we had only done a few more election seminars, Kyrgyzstan could be Denmark by now.
As veterans of postcommunist and transitional democracies, we knew the limits of our seminars. It wasn't enough to bring the information on elections, civic involvement, and transparent governance to places in transition. These countries needed to define their own democratic destiny.
In places with democratic inclinations, US assistance accelerated the timeline for their transition to democracy through a transfer of skills and knowledge. In places with authoritarian rule, American demo-cracy groups made space for struggling democratic partners and human rights campaigners, providing support and often political cover for their efforts.
Iraq doesn't fall into either of these categories, and sets a new precedent in democratic nation building for the US. The Bush administration intends to install a government as a transitional authority, a role assumed by the United Nations in such places as Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.
Creation of an Iraqi government will bring the US new and costly criticism from Iraq and around the world. US support for the Middle East's nondemocratic regimes and the Arabs' low regard for US policy will fuel much of the criticism. The condemnation can be minimized if the transitional authority is seen as a reconstruction agency that implements swift elections and an exit strategy. International transitional authorities work when short-lived - when national elections and a hand over happen within six to nine months. A longer period is rife with risk of the internationals generating their own bureaucracy, often to the exclusion of local leaders and decisionmaking. The longer the transition, the louder and more legitimate the accusation of colonial governance.
Any transitional authority should incorporate Iraqis at all levels, but should avoid giving jobs to those who intend to run for office from their appointed positions. Candidates running from a position of authority will generate complaints of incumbent benefits, be labeled American puppets, and thwart a cornerstone of the very system that the US is attempting to install in Iraq - fair elections. Those transitional employees who don't have a stake in the outcome of the elections can become the core of the civil service and will be more likely to be retained in a future …