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Jewish World Review March 11, 2003 / 7 Adar II, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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A road map for Iraq's liberation devised by James Madison? … 10 minutes with James S. Robbins | Using our mighty military might to depose Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, which now seems as inevitable as springtime, will be the easy part. It's what we do afterwards to turn his oil-rich but fractious country into a stable, modern and genuine democracy that will be the hard part - maybe the impossible part.

James S. Robbins, a national security analyst in Washington, D.C., thinks it can be done by relying on a model devised by James Madison, et al., that has worked pretty well for more than 200 years - the U.S. Constitution.

Robbins, a contributing editor at National Review Online, thinks the Constitution's diffusion of power among federal, state and local governments and its careful balance of executive, legislative and judicial functions at the national level should be a blueprint for a post-Saddam government in Iraq.

I talked to him about his idea on Wednesday by telephone from his offices in Washington:

Q: You're worried about what happens when we depose Saddam and his tribe in Iraq. Why is that?

A: Hopefully, one of the reasons were going into conflict in Iraq is to not only deal with the situation as it is, but also to prevent future Saddams from emerging. If we just go in and deal with the more proximate problem and we leave, we really won't be doing ourselves a service in the long run.

Q: So we have to change the whole structure and whole reality of governmental and political life in Iraq?

A: Right. The administration has used the term "regime change," and even though they've shifted around on exactly what that term means, to someone with a political theory background it kind of suggests more than just a change in the guy who's at the top of the dictatorship, but a more fundamental change.

Q: In 90 seconds or less, tell us what you'd do to bring about long-term democracy and political stability to Iraq. What's your blueprint?

A: I think the problem with democratization efforts of the past has been a belief that if you have a central strong government and call it a democracy that that is somehow going to lead to something other than people assuming absolute power.

If we return to the Madisonian premise that people are power-seekers in a democracy or in any kind of government, and use the mechanisms that are used in our own Constitution to try to pit interest against interest in order to limit power, then that would be a more fruitful approach.

In other words, assume corruption. Assume power-seeking. Assume that people are going to try to exploit the system. But set the system up in such a way that this very quest for gain will work to the benefit of the system.

Q: You're talking about mirroring the federal system that we have here that separates powers and balances interests among various federal, state and local levels.

A: Absolutely.

Q: Why would this work in Iraq, which is one of those British inventions, an artificial construct with different ethnic and religious groups all living in a jumble in the same territory?

A: I think you've also given a perfect description of what the United States was, when it was founded: A British invention, a jumble of people, with artificial borders, who were just trying to work it out.

In the first place, all borders are artificial. No borders were drawn by God. And if you just take what's there and use it, those borders are as good as anything else… . Why not just leave the borders that are there? Maybe it will encourage people within them to work together.

Q: In other parts of the world we have conquered, where have we failed most miserably, most egregiously, to set up stable democracies after deposing a despot?

A: I guess it depends on how you measure it and how long-term you want to look. I think that the United States did poorly at first in the Philippines 100 years ago. There was a very serious guerrilla war that went on at the time which was as controversial in its day as Vietnam. Perhaps in the long term that succeeded. That's really hard to judge.

More recently, I don't think the effort in Haiti has been very productive. I haven't heard anything lately about democracy flourishing in Haiti, although I admit I haven't followed it all that closely. But I know it's not what one would prefer.

Throughout the Cold War, one can look at a variety of relationships the U.S. had with authoritarian dictators in which the question of democratization never even really came up, so one might call that a failure as well.

Q: Where are the big success stories - Japan, Germany?

A: Yeah, the post-World War II democratization efforts in Germany and Japan one could point to. One could point to, I suppose, Grenada, as a good example. Maybe Panama.

Q: Anywhere where we started from scratch? Is Iraq any more or less developed in democratic and civilized ways than some of those other countries were?

A: Yeah, the key term is "civil society." Do they have a civil society developed, which doesn't necessarily mean a democracy, but understood rules of political discourse?

I think that Iraq is probably at the same state as Nazi Germany was, surely.

Of course, Nazi Germany had a past - Weimar Germany and even in Imperial Germany, where there was a parliament. If you look at Iraq's past, there were certain quasi-democratic periods beforehand, say from 1925 to 1964 or so.

But if you compare it with what was in South Korea at the time of its origins, they had nothing. There was no history of democracy in that area at all. They went through an authoritarian period for a long time but eventually it became a democracy.

Q: What is the first thing we'd have to do to erect a successful U.S.A.-type government structure in Iraq?

A: The first thing I would do is start to promote national dialogue among the Iraqi people, and not go in and immediately set up a centralized government that would then be the sole source for aid and the distribution of aid, and have the sole taxing power, and so forth. I would start to promote local governments and let people get used to the idea of being in charge of their own affairs.

Q: Bottoms-up, grassroots.

A: Yes. Absolutely. Grass roots - just like it happened in this country.

Q: Does Islam or the Muslim-state relationship cause you any big worry?

A: We're fortunate in the sense that Iraq is one of the more secular countries in the region. In fact, before 1991, Saddam Hussein was one of the biggest secularizers in the region. He later was using Islam as kind of a propaganda tool.

The only problem is allowing outside states that have more of an interest in promoting a radical Islamic agenda, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, from gaining influence and trying to make religion more of an influence in this society.

Domestically, the Iraqi people would be a lot more willing and a lot more interested in having a secular government, and we could use Turkey as a good example.

Q: What about all those oil revenues?

A: The oil issue is going to be extremely complex. … I don't think there's a clear answer right away, but I would caution against immediately returning control of the oil fields to the new Iraqi government, because it would just make it too powerful and that's the kind of central power you want to avoid.

Q: This is an anti-interventionist argument: We don't like social engineering here at home. Isn't this a form of social engineering on a global scale - trying to impose Western political and economic ideas and even cultural values on a country?

A: No. Because if we are true to the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which tell us that the rights of citizens spring naturally from their existence, and that people are naturally free, what the United States is doing is removing a dictatorship that's been foisted on the Iraqi people and allowing them the opportunity to chart their own free destiny and set up a free society.

I wouldn't call it social engineering. I'd call it liberation.

Q: How long will we have to occupy Iraq until it's safe to leave?

A: A long time. However, I think the United States will benefit from being in Iraq, not as an occupation army, but as a strategic partner. Iraq is a geo-strategically vital piece of terrain. It's the kind of place where the United States would want a military presence anyway, so I don't particularly see a problem in maintaining a presence there, based on our national defense interests, as well as these interests in democratizing

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald