Can a Democratic Iraq Survive?

November 20, 2002 Topic: Security

Can a Democratic Iraq Survive?

It is obvious that a good deal of planning must occur about the shape of post-Ba'athi Iraq, even before any shots are fired.

It is obvious that a good deal of planning must occur about the shape of post-Ba'athi Iraq, even before any shots are fired. A lack of planning for what would happen after Iraq's forces were routed from Kuwait tarnished the overwhelming American military victory in 1991. The Bush Administration has expressed its preference for a democratic Iraq, yet practical details are scarce, and political engineering is taking a back seat to military planning. Thinking about this problem, however, cannot wait until after the military victory-it must begin today, before Saddam is removed.

The conventional wisdom says that Iraq is too divided to be able to function as a democracy. Iraqis do not have a strong identity as a nation; British colonialists created modern Iraq; and Saddam's divide-and-rule policies have kept Iraqis at each others' throats (and thus away from Saddam's). Iraq's Kurds have experienced a genocidal level of slaughter at the hands of Arabs. Iraq's Sunni leadership has also killed, jailed and brutally suppressed Iraq's majority Shi‘a community. Tribal identities further fracture ethnic and sectarian ones, with neither the Shi‘as nor the Kurds able to present a united front. Iraq's fractious opposition groups are united only in their hatred of Saddam: Their constant bickering bodes poorly for their ability to unite Iraq.

These divisions create three dangerous problems. First, Iraq's current elites are likely to strenuously oppose democratization, fearing loss of status and power. The Ba'ath Party extends beyond Saddam, his family and a few close associates; merely removing Saddam and his closest henchmen will not change this. Although "de-Ba'athization" of Iraq may be desirable in principle, it risks further destabilization of the country.

Second, new leaders may compete to win the loyalties of their own specific ethnic, religious or tribal communities, rather than working to construct a national consensus. This is especially risky if such leaders espouse hatred and concentrate on ripping the scabs off of barely healed wounds.

Finally, Iraq is at risk for a "tyranny of the majority." Iraq's Shi‘a community, in particular, might use free elections as a mechanism to transform its current exclusion from power to one of total dominance.

To counteract these risks, many have proposed the creation of a federal Iraq, in which there would be proportional representation for Iraq's different communities, a high degree of local autonomy, and a consensual process among leaders. The intention is to offset the risks that Iraq's divisions pose to ensure that leaders work together and that various minority groups enjoy considerable freedoms regardless of who rules in Baghdad.

Federalism, however, is far from a perfect solution. One weakness of federalism, especially federalism predicated on ethnic and religious subdivisions, is that specific individuals often are limited in what they can achieve. Even if Iraq's Kurdish community enjoys support in the Shi‘a south, for example, a leader of Kurdish extraction would be limited to a given fraction of Iraq's leadership position. Proponents of a federalized Iraq should recall that Lebanon's complicated system for distributing posts based on ethnic and religious criteria contributed to a two-decade long, devastating civil war.

The bigger problem is the risk of warlordism. A weak central government is inherent to a decentralized government that would ensure all communities of their liberties. After all, a strong government could easily repress minorities once international attention drifted away from Iraq. Yet, this inherent weakness is also a grave danger. Groups that are not content with the initial bargain could arm, organize, and train with impunity, waiting for an opportunity to strike and alarming other groups. The result could be a spiral of suspicion that spills into conflict.

A weak federal government would also increase the danger of regional strife. Iraq's neighbors have a history of meddling in its internal affairs. A weak federal government (and correspondingly strong local administrations with independent militias) might provoke Turkish intervention to ensure that Iraq's Kurds would remain weak and unable to support Kurdish insurgents in Turkey itself. Turkey might also be tempted to declare its "special interest" in the well being of the Turkoman populace. Iran, in turn, might also seek to champion its partisans within Iraq's Shi‘a community.

Finally, a federal Iraq also would suffer an acute identity crisis. Given the many identities that are politically salient in Iraq, it is not clear which identity should be used as the benchmark to apportion political power. Should a resident of southern Iraq vote as a Shi‘a Muslim, a member of a southern tribe, or as a resident of Basra? All are valid identities. Moreover, by rewarding a more specific ethnic, religious, or tribal identity, the new regime devalues the worth of embracing an "Iraqi" identity.

Adding to the mix of federalism's faults and divided societies' risks, a democratic Iraq would undergo the same difficulties as other transitional democracies. Scholars have found that democratizing countries (as opposed to stable democracies) are more likely to war with their neighbors. In addition, chauvinistic leaders might use newfound freedoms to stir up hatred-a problem that Iraq's current divisions and a weak federalist government will exacerbate. Iraq's brutal past gives them plenty of material. Some groups, particularly the Kurds, might take advantage of the state's weakness to press for secession. The devastation of twenty years of war and sanctions have also taken their toll, making it hard for a new government to restore a decent life to its citizens-and if the new regime is unable to deliver a higher standard of living, democracy itself could be de-legitimized in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

Security lies at the root of these problems. If the populace cannot be sure of its safety, and if other countries are free to meddle, then the risk of firebrands dominating the public debate is high. Unfortunately, federalism's inherent weakness makes this problem even more likely. For the United States, the problem is even more profound. Those most able to provide security-Iraq's Sunni community, particularly the tribes and families tied to Iraq's security forces-are the most hostile to the United States.

Although the list of challenges to a new Iraqi democracy is long, the United States can ameliorate a number of the risks. The threats to a nascent Iraqi democracy are not insurmountable if the United States takes the right steps.

A large American and allied military presence is essential. A large, multinational force with a strong and clear mandate to act can reassure Iraq's Shi‘a and Kurdish communities that repression at the hands of Iraq's Sunni Arabs is at an end. Equally important, the presence of foreign troops signals to Iraq's Sunnis that the end of their dominance will not entail persecution and repression.

This presence must last for years. Setting a specified date for an American withdrawal only encourages belligerent local leaders to wait out the United States. Moreover, the force must purge and rebuild a local security system capable of enforcing order once the foreign troops are withdrawn. This will require major commitments in terms of personnel and resources. Gaining the support of American allies in Europe and elsewhere in the world is essential now, prior to any campaign. If the United States goes into Iraq alone, it will remain alone when Iraq's pieces must be picked up.

The United States must also be prepared to work with a range of leaders, including those with dirty (though not filthy) hands. Getting rid of the coterie around Saddam is essential. However, like it or not, it is vital to work with Sunni army leaders and lower level security officials, as they are often leaders of Sunni communities. Moreover, if they are ignored or persecuted they will work to undermine Iraq's fragile democracy.

These steps are costly. They risk American lives, and require billions of dollars. But the costs of the civil war and regional strife that would occur if Iraq's democracy failed would be much higher.

Daniel Byman is an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. The opinions presented here are his own.