Fighting Words

Are Elections Democratic?

Dictatorships are hardly preferable.

Hey-ho for another bonny New Year, once again trying to work out which of the “anti-war” arguments will turn out to be the real one. Topic for this week: Are elections democratic? You will perhaps recall that, at about this time last year, the New York Times made an editorial demand that the then-upcoming Iraqi elections be postponed. The reasoning given was that “security” made such elections impossible and that, in any case, the regions previously aligned with Baathism would not have a fair chance at a proper turnout. Apart from the fact that this logic would have given the saboteurs and video-beheaders an indefinite veto on an election process supervised by the United Nations, and apart from the weird sympathy for the minority who had been used to ruling permanently without elections, there seemed little to fault in this idea. Then came the moment we all now yawn about, with millions of people waiting patiently and getting purple fingers, which has since been repeated twice, to the point where elections in Iraq—Iraq!—have come to seem routine, even banal.

During that period of increasingly commonplace elections, the argument that such a process is unfair to those described as “Sunnis” has also become somewhat weakened, since at every stage the inhabitants of towns or provinces thus denominated have registered, and voted, in increasing numbers. The jeering at the very idea of elections has now come down to a final three points (at least at the time of this writing; I can’t be sure if there will be fresher objections registered before these words are in print):

1) Elections were an “add-on,” nothing to do with the original project of Bush administration regime change, which was all about WMD. 2) Elections only lead to the empowerment of an “Iranian-style” theocracy.3) Elections in advance of mature nation-building and democratic institutions lead to strife, if not to war.

The first argument, very much trumpeted recently by Noam Chomsky and his supporters, insists that elections were in effect imposed on the coalition only by mass protest, led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani and other indigenous forces. Though this lacks the merit of being accurate (the president’s speech on Iraq to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, referred to dictatorship and the maltreatment of minorities at several points), it does contain some truth. Elections were on the American agenda from the start, but in a somewhat platonic way, and they might well have been postponed for longer if it were not for strong arguments in favor of an earlier transfer of sovereignty and an earlier poll. The problem for the “anti-war” forces is that these arguments were put forward, against Paul Bremer and the CPA, by men like Ahmad Chalabi and Jalal Talabani, who are otherwise supposed to be obedient American puppets.

More cartoons about Iraq

The second case, involving triumphalism by the long-trampled Shiite majority, is, again, not as plain or simple as it is sometimes made to seem. There are pro-Khomeini and anti-Khomeini elements in the Shiite spectrum, and it is quite well-understood by even the hard-liners among them that they cannot govern Iraq as if they are the only party. Many devout Shiites have direct experience of Iranian politics and a correspondingly strong sense that they cannot legislate for everyone, most particularly not for the large area of the country that is Kurdish. The covert Iranian hand in the bargaining is much too strong (as I wrote last week), but it would be very much stronger if Iraq had been allowed to implode without a coalition presence.

The third objection, which was given a workout in Slate by Fred Kaplan a month or so ago, is based on a new book called Electing To Fight, by Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder. These two political scientists take issue with one of the supposed tenets of neoconservatism: namely, the belief that “democracies rarely, if ever, wage war against one another.” As stated—the actual words come from William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan in their book The War Over Iraq—the precept is so guarded as to be slightly safer than an axiom. But still, it requires some testing and examination.

A supporting article by Gary J. Bass in the New York Times of Jan. 1 phrases it like this:

Democratizing countries often lack the rule of law, organized political parties and professional news media. Without those restraining institutions firmly in place, empowering the public can mean empowering bellicose nationalists. As communism crumbled in Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia used populist nationalism to fuel their rise to power—and to start a blood bath.

Well, if “populist nationalism” is to be equated with democracy, then we can all pack up and go home. But it so happens that neither Milosevic nor Tudjman came to power entirely democratically (and it is also the case that when elections were finally held in both their unhappy countries, they both eventually lost). And this was long before the “rule of law” was anything but a sick joke in either state.

It is truer to argue, as Mansfield and Snyder and Bass do, that elections and war fever can easily coincide. This was the case in Europe before 1914, even if the electorate of those days was very limited. And it was partly the case, as they argue, with Putin and Chechnya, and with Turkey in Cyprus in 1974. However, Putin cunningly resorted to force in Chechnya well in advance of the Russian “elections,” so it can’t so easily be maintained that he was driven to war by a popular mandate. And Bulent Ecevit was deposed from power in Turkey by the very same chauvinist forces that he had unleashed. While dictatorships that embark on opportunist war as a sort of plebiscite—one might instance Greece over Cyprus in the same year of 1974, or Argentina with the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982—often fall and are replaced by democracies. Milosevic himself might have held on to power in at least a rump of “Greater Serbia” if he had not been crazy enough to try to cleanse Kosovo (and thus destabilize Macedonia). The other example given by Bass—of the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956—doesn’t at all prove his contention that when democracies “squabble with a dictator,” they often don’t “trust the dictator enough for serious negotiations, and war is a likely result.” On the contrary, Britain and France and Israel declined all offers of negotiation and made their secret collusion in the attack into a state secret that was kept from their respective electorates for many years.

The man who most often tried to rescue his domestic position by the resort to war—”to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” as the Bard has it—was, in our time, Saddam Hussein. Huge cemeteries and mass graves, in Iraq and Iran and Kuwait, testify to the horror of this enterprise. It does not seem very probable to me that the new Iraq will again invade either Iran or Kuwait. (Indeed, some of the Sunni extremists have objected to the apology for aggression that was recently offered by an elected Iraqi prime minister.) So, the risks of democracy seem somewhat slighter than those posed by absolutism. As for those dangerous elections, would Mansfield or Snyder or Bass have relished the job of telling Iraqis and Kurds, after more than three decades of war and fascism, that it was too soon to hear from them at the polls? I rather suspect that this might have led to more civil strife than less. The screwed-upness of Iraq is a given, but that very fact tells against those who would have let it rot or let it run on as it was. And this was, and is, the point of regime change to begin with.