Jewish World Review June 8, 2004 /20 Sivan 5764
In Iraq, don't cut and run. cut and don't run
"I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free,
not to make them American," President Bush said on May 24.
Right, but what about making them Taiwanese? Or South Korean,
or Turkish, or Mexican, or perhaps Russian? Now, there we
might have something.
Bush intends to give Iraq "a representative government that
protects basic rights, elected by Iraqis." His critics implicitly
agree with him that anything less than democracy would constitute
failure, which they see looming.
Both views may be wrong. The biggest mistake America could
make in Iraq would be not to try for democracy there. The
second-biggest mistake might be to try too hard.
In an influential Commentary magazine article in 1979, Jeane
Kirkpatrick, a Georgetown University professor (she later
became U.N. ambassador in the Reagan administration), argued
that in Iran and Nicaragua and elsewhere, America's efforts
to democratize authoritarian regimes too quickly had backfired
catastrophically in the face of determined insurgencies.
"The American effort to impose liberalization and democratization
on a government confronted with violent internal opposition
not only failed," she wrote, "but actually assisted the
coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people
enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under
the previous autocracy regimes, moreover, hostile to
American interests and policies."
She discerned a pattern. The United States would pressure
a friendly authoritarian regime to enter into negotiations
"to establish a 'broadly based' coalition headed by a 'moderate'
critic of the regime, who, once elevated, will move quickly
to seek a 'political' settlement to the conflict." Alas,
it never worked. "Only after the insurgents have refused
the proffered political solution and anarchy has spread
throughout the nation will it be noticed that the new head
of government has no significant following, no experience
at governing, and no talent for leadership." The moderate
government collapses, the insurgents win, America faces
a new enemy.
The failure, she argued, was based on a fatal U.S. misunderstanding
of "how actual democracies have actually come into being."
Typically, they emerge from "traditional autocracies," which
she distinguished from radical and totalitarian ones. "Decades,
if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire
the necessary disciplines and habits" of democracy, she
said. A traditional autocracy, provided it is reasonably
friendly to the U.S. and poses no threat to its neighbors,
may look ugly, but it can provide the stability that incubates
In only two modern countries was democracy imposed quickly
and successfully from outside: West Germany and Japan, both
after World War II. Many more cases have followed Kirkpatrick's
model of liberalization within an authoritarian, but not
totalitarian, regime. As if to underscore the point, Russia
recently tried to leap straight to multiparty democracy
and failed. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia now appears
to be moving through a phase of authoritarian consolidation,
from which, the West can only hope, real democracy might
The Bush administration seems to see Iraq through the prism
of Japan and Germany. In this view, representative democracy
in Iraq can succeed because American forces will stay there
to guarantee it. America, goes the mantra, will not cut
Well, maybe it won't, but much of the public is eyeing the
exits. Building democracies in Japan and West Germany required
U.S. occupations lasting seven and four years respectively,
and in neither place did the Americans face an angry population
or a hardened insurgency fed by conniving neighbors and
an international terrorist network. The Pentagon has done
its utmost for more than a year and still cannot even control
the borders or protect the head of the governing council
outside the coalition's own gates. Almost 70 percent of
Iraqis told the Gallup Organization recently that they feared
for their lives if they cooperated with the occupation.
Worse, outside the Kurdish north, a sizable plurality of
Iraqis believe that public cooperation with the coalition
would not speed up stability anyway.
The Iraqis are probably right. It appears that only Iraqis
themselves can secure their country, sometimes using methods
that Americans cannot countenance. So here is Plan B: Aim
for democracy in Iraq, but settle for less. Cut and don't
Under this scenario call it realism America and the
United Nations would stay on in Iraq, but they would take
a minimalist role. They would jump-start elections and then
draw a few red lines around whatever Iraqi government emerged:
no atrocities, no civil war, no threatening of neighbors,
no intervention by neighbors. The allies would help train
and equip Iraqi forces, patrol the borders, and protect
the flow of oil and gas. Other than that, they would leave
"Self-imposed guidelines are very important in Iraq," says
JWR contributor Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based
think tank. "We should say very clearly to the Iraqis and
the world that Iraq is on its own."
And then? The U.S. and U.N. will probably bequeath to Iraq
a delicately balanced compromise government, with Sunnis,
Shiites, and Kurds all represented. As Kirkpatrick warned
in 1979, such brokered regimes tend to be too weak to govern.
In the course of things, the weakman government may give
way after an election or two to a strongman government,
consolidating power much as Putin has done in Russia. The
regime would set about curtailing if not dismantling democracy,
while preserving the trappings.
We know a lot about such governments; indeed, America has
had them in some of our big cities, such as New York City
under Tammany Hall and Chicago under the first Mayor Daley.
Typically, they are one-party political machines that buy
off most of their enemies through patronage and use police
power to intimidate the rest. Such regimes are far from
pretty, but they are more interested in stability than in
ideology, and they are a far cry from the megalomania and
mass terror of a Saddam Hussein.
Pipes argues for accepting such a regime in Iraq as the
best of real-world alternatives. "I think the administration's
goals are too heady, too ambitious," he said. "If it turns
out I'm wrong and things go according to plan, I will be
delighted. My goal is not to have Iraq be less well-off.
It is a judgment call." Countenancing a "democratically
minded strongman," Pipes argues, would slow the democratic
transition, not block it; and democracy, when it came, might
be the stronger for emerging from within.
In an interview, Kirkpatrick, now at the American Enterprise
Institute, said, "We need to set the bar within the realm
of the possible. We need to face the fact that [Iraqis]
have absolutely no experience with democracy."
The trouble with such realism is that it may be unrealistic.
Given the amount of rhetorical capital Bush has invested
in his call to make Iraq a democratic beachhead in the Middle
East, settling for even a moderate autocracy might come
off as a surrender. The world would hoot at America's enthronement
of "Saddam lite." And could America's troops really just
stand aside with a shrug if an Iraqi Putin or Pinochet began
closing newspapers and arresting enemies?
But realists have three strong rejoinders. First, a Putinized
or Pinocheted Iraq, however flawed, would be much better
than a Saddamized one. Second, Iraq would be constantly
prodded from inside and outside toward genuine democracy,
and would probably arrive there within a generation. Third,
for outsiders to indefinitely prop up and micromanage a
dysfunctional government in an unstable environment may
work, sort of, in a tiny place like Kosovo, but it cannot
work in Iraq.
For good reason, the Bush administration talks the talk
of democracy; but realism, like Washington's cicada brood,
lurks underground, awaiting its season. To realists, an
Iraq that became an Islamist stronghold or a terrorist haven
or a pawn of its neighbors would be a defeat, but a less-than-democratic
Iraq would be merely a disappointment. In the realist view,
U.S. forces' willingness to cede effective control of Falluja
to former Baathists, provided they observed certain limits,
was less a surrender than a model. It wasn't pretty, but
"I would love to have democracy in Iraq, but we're not going
to create it," an administration official told me last summer.
"That's not the reason we conducted the military activity,
and it's not the reason we're there now." Iraqis, he said,
will have to govern their country in their own fashion.
He might have quoted Kirkpatrick, who wrote, 25 years ago,
"History is a better guide than good intentions."
JWR contributor Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, The Atlantic Monthly, from where this is reprinted