Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is President Bush Pushing for Democracy Too Quickly in Post-Saddam Iraq? Yes: Premature Elections May Increase the Risk of Long-Term Political Violence

Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is President Bush Pushing for Democracy Too Quickly in Post-Saddam Iraq? Yes: Premature Elections May Increase the Risk of Long-Term Political Violence

Article excerpt


President George W. Bush is rolling the democratic dice in Iraq and gambling that the formation of democratic institutions there can stimulate a democratic political culture. If he is proved correct it will mean a democratic first, for what Bush seeks to achieve in Iraq has never been accomplished before. On the contrary, the available evidence strongly suggests that the relationship between institutions and culture works the other way around.

A political culture shapes democracy far more than democracy shapes the political culture. The building blocks of a modern, democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, legislatures and constitutions. Rather, they are found amidst supportive cultural values and apt economic conditions.

Gen. Tommy Franks clearly did his homework before engaging Iraq in military combat, but there are red faces throughout the Bush administration over the lack of preparation for the political challenge of post-Saddam Iraq. Vivid demonstrations of religious fervor and undemocratic intent, viewed in tandem with clerics who have taken the political initiative by gaining control of numerous villages, towns and sections of major cities, caught U.S. political leadership completely off guard.

Whether it's setting up Islamic courts of justice or applying pressure against liquor distributors, music stores, cinemas and unveiled women, religious fundamentalists have taken advantage of the free-for-all that is postwar Iraq to browbeat their communities into a stricter Islamic way of life. Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, Kurds have forced Arabs from homes and land originally confiscated from the Kurds during Saddam Hussein's tenure.

To pour fuel on this fire, Ba'athist gangs rapidly have reorganized and with violent consequences. In a very revealing move, Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, canceled local elections after concluding that the likely outcomes would be unfavorable to U.S. interests. A classified State Department report warned that "anti-American sentiment is so pervasive that Iraqi elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic-controlled governments hostile to the United States."

In all likelihood Bush will be gravely disappointed with the result of his effort to establish democracy in Iraq. Mounting evidence strongly suggests that Iraq's democratic journey will be slow, treacherous and littered with setbacks.

It is true that a fairly high level of popular support exists in Iraq for the concept of democracy. Most Iraqis superficially agree with Winston Churchill that democracy may have its problems but it is better than any other form of government. But that is not enough. In practice, overt support for democracy is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for democratic institutions to emerge. In fact, individual-level lip service to democracy is only weakly related to a truly liberal democratic society.

The long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture that solidly supports democracy. A liberal democracy requires a framework of liberal political norms and values, as well as the foundation of a pluralistic civil society. Hypothetical support for representative government provides neither sufficient stimulus nor staying power for democracy to take root.

What are the specific cultural factors that play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a liberal democracy? The first is political trust. This is the assumption that one's opponent will accept the rules of the democratic process and surrender power if he or she loses an election. The second factor is social tolerance, i.e., the acceptance of traditionally unpopular minority groups, such as homosexuals. The third factor is popular support for gender equality. …

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