Democracy Illusions

Published November 28, 2006

National Review Online

Bad news.  Very bad news.  I really don’t think news articles get much more discouraging than this one and this one from The Washington Post.

Here’s a passage from the piece on the Iraq Study Group:  “Iraq’s prime minister ‘doesn’t have any coercive powers of his own,’ he [a senior U.S. intelligence official] said, calling Maliki ‘beholden to Sadr.’ Maliki won the prime minister’s job with backing from Sadr, whose political block holds 30 seats in parliament.”  Of course, Sadr runs a militia that is virtually at war with the United States, and with the rest of Iraq.

Since before the war, I’ve expressed doubts about the quick elections path to democracy.  (See my “Democratic Imperialism.”) I was willing, even eager, to be proven wrong, but I fear that the current situation provides nothing but dramatic confirmation of the dangers of holding elections in a fundamentally illiberal environment.  In fact, “illiberal” only barely gets at the problem.  We’ve been touting and sponsoring elections in environments where weak central governments lack any monopoly on coercive force.  In Palestinian territories, in Lebanon, and in Iraq, we’ve see armed and independent militias operating outside of government control either formally take centralized power, gain de facto control of centralized power, or virtually go to war with centralized power.  There is certainly a case to be made for going slowly on disarming independent militias.  But holding elections before militias have been disarmed is evidently a very bad idea.

I’m afraid the notion that elections were bringing us democracy has been largely wish fulfillment.  Purple fingers notwithstanding, voters weren’t thinking nationally, much less liberally.  They were voting communally.  And with armed non-governmental militias at large, this amounted to voting for quasi-secessionist entities.

The notion that elections bring democracy by teaching people to be responsible for their own bad choices simply cannot work in a totally illiberal environment.  Our military commitment has been far too small to support our political ambitions.  We haven’t disarmed the militias and we haven’t held the territory we’ve cleared.  Because we haven’t established security or handed a central power a monopoly of legitimate force, elections have backfired.  We’ve been hoping that elections themselves would do the work that only a government monopoly of force and long-term cultural change can do.

Now it may well be that, even at the start, we lacked the political will to marshal sufficient military force: to enlarge our military, to go to war with Sadr, to enlarge our footprint in Iraq itself, and to keep central power in our hands for a longer period.  But those are the things that would have been needed to begin to bring real democracy to Iraq.  To believe we could democratize without all that — chiefly through elections themselves — was an error.

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