Iraq's Progress

Democracy—Faster, Better, Smarter

The seven best new ideas for introducing representative government to Iraq.

Small steps toward democracy

These days, democracy seems to be a booby prize. In his new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria argues that the recent proliferation of democracy has been a distinctly mixed blessing. Democracy has unleashed ethnic and religious hatreds that had been suppressed, as new elections have vaulted to power radical Islamist leaders and genocidal nationalists. Popularly chosen presidents have used democratic elections to justify suppressing courts, legislatures, and other independent sources of government power. Russia, for example, has traded a Communist dictatorship for a democratic one. Zakaria argues that democracy does not supply or even defend most of what we prize in our own government: the rule of law, individual rights, the protection of property, and basic fairness.

So, the challenge facing the United States is not merely how to introduce “democracy” to Iraq—democracy, after all, is as easy as holding an election—but how to bring about a liberal, constitutional democracy—a popular government that also protects the rule of law and basic rights. It’s a noble ambition and a preposterously difficult one: If there is anything that democracy experts agree on, it’s that you can’t easily manufacture the conditions for liberal democracy. No quick fix replaces the hard work of building trust in laws, establishing checks and balances, encouraging civil debate, and so on. Recent attempts to impose democracy in countries such as Cambodia, Bosnia, and Angola have failed dismally.

Still, the experimentation in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and Africa has produced a bunch of new ideas about how to build a genuine democracy faster and smarter. These ideas are not exactly futuristic—there are no radical technologies for perfecting democracy (e-mail can’t exactly replace the rule of law)—but it’s only been in the past decade that nation-builders have come to realize exactly how important they are. Here are seven of the best lessons for Iraq:

1. Delay it. The United States is raring to hold elections, declare democracy, and split. All recent experience suggests this is a terrible idea. In Cambodia and Bosnia, for example, the peacekeepers—eager to leave—staged fast votes. The result: The most nationalist, ruthless, and extreme candidates were elected.

Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that rushing elections reinforces the divisions that already exist in a society. As a nation rapidly “decompresses,” tribal and religious loyalties fill the vacuum. Citizens attach themselves to what’s familiar—often the most belligerent separatists. If elections were held today in Iraq, radical Shiite clerics and Kurdish separatists would be elected. A month later, Iraq would be half Islamic theocracy allied with Iran, half Kurdish state at war with Turkey, and all misery. (New ideas for minimizing this ethnic and religious conflict will be the subject of a later piece.)

Carothers and others insist that a fledgling democracy should delay elections until new associations—business ties, social and professional networks, new political parties not based on tribal or religious affliation—have time to develop and compete with identity politics. A people trained for silence and obedience needs time to figure out how to participate and dissent.

Delaying national elections also allows Iraq to take baby steps. Daniel Serwer, director of the Balkans Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says that Kosovo’s democracy has functioned better than Bosnia’s in part because Kosovo held municipal elections first, allowing political parties to get practice and giving voters the chance to learn politics locally. Local elections can diminish the influence of ethnic and religious parties since hometown politics tend to be about bread and roads, not ideology.

2. Establish rule of law and an independent judiciary before elections. There’s a tendency in democracy-building to mistake elections for a stable democratic government. Every state requires order first. (Later in the series, we’ll discuss the best new ideas for securing that order.) People can’t participate in government if they don’t feel safe.

The judiciary—which guarantees that order—must precede the elected government. Many recent new democracies—notably Russia—have floundered because their elected officials and business elites went unchecked. In Russia, the failure to enforce the rule of law allowed a few people to loot state assets and set up as barons. The absence of a powerful court system enabled Presidents Yeltsin and Putin to demolish all rival sources of power and make themselves democratic tyrants.

3. “Horizontal accountability.” A corollary to the rule of law. In a totalitarian state like Saddam’s Iraq, no independent power source was permitted. There was one supreme, unchallengeable authority. Liberal democracy requires independent sources of power to ensure that voted-in leaders don’t use the excuse of elections to revoke rights and crush rivals. Scholars call this diffusion of power “horizontal accountability.” It’s essentially what Americans know as “checks and balances.”

Journal of Democracy Editor Marc Plattner, one of the leaders in this field, says that in addition to an independent judiciary—always at the top of the list—two sorts of institutions are proving particularly effective. Independent electoral commissions set election rules, monitor fraud, and give new parties a chance to compete fairly. Mexico’s commission, says Plattner, was essential in that nation’s recent transition to genuine multiparty democracy. In Thailand and elsewhere, independent anti-corruption commissions publicize and punish graft, bribery, and other sleaziness by elected officials. In nations where leaders have traditionally raided the state without consequence, such commissions restore faith in government. They also teach elected officials that their job is public service, not profiteering.

4. Reverse the diaspora. Civil war, dictatorship, and economic catastrophe drive away the best citizens of any country—especially the free-thinking souls that a vibrant democracy needs. As several readers—notably Steve Carter—emphasized to me, diaspora Iraqis are exactly the folks who can accelerate the rebuilding. They marry native knowledge with the first-world expertise needed to build a successful new government. They can set up central banks, build public health networks, start a civil service, teach policing, and write good laws.

But why would they leave their new wealth and opportunity for the laughable salaries and wretched working conditions of a postwar Iraqi government? George Soros’ Open Society Institute and other organizations hit on the clever notion of subsidizing diaspora folks to go back home. The returnees get enough extra cash to soften their sacrifice. They don’t necessarily stay forever, just long enough to kick-start good government.

5. Use new technology and media to instill the habits of democracy. Democracy is a learned behavior. The experiences of the former Soviet Union and Cambodia are evidence that democracy stumbles if citizens don’t know how to act like citizens. In a totalitarian state, people are trained to shut up and avoid trouble. They don’t understand the new behavior that democracy demands. They even fear it. This is a disaster since democracy can’t flourish with a timid citizenry.

Iraqis can’t learn these habits overnight, but new technology and media can help speed up the process. As National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and others point out, the Internet is a superb tool for bringing people together and prompting them to organize. E-mail and the Web help far-flung people ally over shared religious or political or economic interests—sometimes for ill, as with al-Qaida, but often for good. In Kosovo, for example, an NGO has posted an online training course for political activists, a free guide for anyone who is trying to figure out how to start a political party.

The Internet—an endless bazaar of clashing ideas—also demonstrates the virtues of free speech to people who don’t know them, says Sheryl Brown, who co-directs the Virtual Diplomacy Initiative at U.S. Institute of Peace. (A number of readers, in fact, have suggested scattering Internet kiosks across Iraq to seed free speech.)

Independent journalists can also encourage democratic habits, argues University of Colorado professor Roland Paris, author of the forthcoming AtWar’s End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. Iraqi media have been a boot-licking tool of the Saddam state. The blossoming of new, irreverent media may show Iraqis that public dispute is safe—a necessary starting point for political jockeying.

A related idea: According an article in last week’s Washington Post, USAID just gave an $8 million contract to a North Carolina firm called RTI to organize meetings in Iraq that will help communities decide what kind of local government they want. The purpose is not simply to design a local government but also to show Iraqis the virtues of participation, debate, and consensus-building.

6. Let the United Nations organize the political process. Granted, the United Nations has ineptly handled most of its rebuilding missions. It should not be trusted to impose order in Iraq or restore the economy. The United States should boss these matters.

But one recent moral of nation-building is that a puppet democracy may be worse than no democracy. An Iraqi democratic leader who’s perceived as an American tool will be challenged, delegitimized, emasculated, and probably assassinated. A political process under U.N. auspices would possess a legitimacy that a U.S. process would not, says Stephen Stedman, acting co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. The United States can (and should) manipulate the process behind the scenes, but it needs the United Nations’ stamp to make the result authoritative. Afghan President Hamid Karzai “has escaped the label of being an American puppet” because the United Nations ran the process that selected him, says Stedman. “Whatever problems Karzai may have, he is still seen as being legitimate internally.”

7. When you finally do hold elections, bring in international observers. International election observers have been around for only 20 years, but they have been a surprising buttress for democratization. Observing elections doesn’t prevent cheating and certainly doesn’t make people vote for better candidates, but it does help ensure that a ruthless ruling party doesn’t neuter the opposition. Observers give candidates in a new democracy incentive to play by the rules. Election observation helped ratify real democracy in the Philippines and in much of Africa by improving polls enough that citizens and the rest of the world accepted the results.

These seven ideas, even if executed promptly and perfectly, wouldn’t bring a darling liberal democracy to Iraq. As recent history of, well, just about everywhere, has taught that you can’t build a thriving democratic state without law and order and a vigorous civil society: the nongovernmental associations, business groups, religious organizations, clubs, and social networks that knit a nation together. The next two pieces in this series will search for progress in those two areas.


Read the introduction to Iraq’s Progress and the new ideas for bringing  law and order, civil society, economic recovery, and religious harmony to Iraq and using virtual world games to reconstruct it.