The illusion of democracy

There was nothing unusual about the headlines in Monday’s paper: A Canadian soldier was killed by the Taliban; five American soldiers are accused of raping and murdering a teenager; more than 50 Sunnis were pulled from their cars and executed by bands of Shiites; within hours a Shiite mosque was bombed and 17 more died. Clearly, the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and a drastic re-evaluation of our goals there is essential.

Since WMDs and connections between Saddam and al Qaeda didn’t materialize, one of the ex post facto rationales for the invasion is the creation of a free and friendly democracy in Iraq. Ordinarily, we hold democracy up as the ultimate form of government. But freedom and democracy aren’t identical and neither is very likely in the absence of security and order, the essential elements of civilized life.

The ideas of Fareed Zakaria, a journalist and political analyst, are relevant here. In “The Future of Freedom,” Zakaria distinguishes between “democracy” and the freedoms of “constitutional liberalism.” They’re not the same thing, and one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.

Constitutional liberalism has nothing to do with the often-excoriated L-word of modern American politics. It refers to a set of highly prized Western and American values that emphasize individual liberty and the rule of law. It puts great stock in freedom of speech and of religion, tolerance, the limitation of the power of government over an individual’s liberty, and the separation of church and state.

On the other hand, the essential principle of democracy is rule by the people, especially through the expression of their will in free elections. However, democracy doesn’t guarantee that the desirable elements of constitutional liberalism listed above will be put into practice. Zakaria notes that many Western governments have managed to associate constitutional liberalism and democracy, but he also points out many examples of liberal autocracies (most 19th-century Western European countries) and illiberal democracies (the Palestinian Authority).

In fact, Zakaria notes that, in spite of the progressive “democratization” of the modern world, true liberal democracies are difficult to achieve and they don’t develop overnight. They require much more than setting up ballot boxes. Furthermore, democracies have their greatest chances of success under particular conditions, none of which currently exist in Iraq.

Accordingly, a realistic re-evaluation of our goals in Iraq is essential to get the current violent stalemate off dead center:

The first priority, far above all else, must be order; nothing good is going to emerge from this civil war. Unfortunately, we’ve never had enough troops in Iraq to impose order by force and now our presence is sprinkling gasoline onto the fire. Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other recent breakdowns in troop discipline make things worse. The United States should ask for help from the international community, particularly Arab and Muslim states, to broker a cease fire and move our troops to the sidelines. A group of peacemakers who have credibility and a stake in a positive result is essential. This would require the bitter pill of admitting that our original course in Iraq was mistaken. But it was.

Second, a constitutional government has to be established, even if it’s not a democracy, and even if it doesn’t immediately embody all of the freedoms that we believe a full-blown liberal democracy should have. This will be enormously difficult, if not impossible, and the Bush administration no longer has enough credibility with many Iraqis to accomplish it without outside help. A reasonably functional governmental infrastructure is required, even if it has to be imposed temporarily by non-elected, non-U.S. powers. To the extent that it’s possible, Iraq has to begin to feel like a country again before efforts toward democracy are likely to succeed.

Finally, a liberal democracy _ maybe. Given Iraq’s cobbled-together history, the sectarian abysses that divides it, its lack of a common cultural history and the blood that’s being shed daily, it won’t happen easily or soon.

The Bush administration was naive about the challenge of achieving democracy in Iraq, imagining that it could be imposed by force rather than by diplomacy over time. Perhaps there’s still hope. But if our current policy isn’t changed profoundly and soon, we can expect a continual stream of grim news from Iraq for some time to come.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp(at)