By now, the long hard slog that is Iraq should have convinced all but the most die-hard believers that there is no presto, quick change formula that transforms an entrenched autocracy into a liberal democracy overnight. Thus, it is even more surprising that a number of the elements that failed in Iraq are being touted as viable options in promoting democracy across the Eurasian steppes.
For those not satisfied with the pace of evolutionary, incremental change in some states - or frustrated by the lack of movement in others - the temptation of using wealthy exiles and opposition forces to displace existing regimes in Central Asia, in the Caucasus and perhaps even Russia itself is too great to resist. After all, what emerges can't possibly be worse than the status quo, right?
This leads to the first lesson from Iraq: if you pursue regime change, know beforehand what you intend to replace the ancien regime with.
"Creative destruction" is not a feasible strategy. One cannot topple a regime and then assume that after a period of anarchy and a struggle for power among different factions or regional groupings a more liberal and pluralistic government will come to power.
Whole-scale de-Baathification in Iraq, for example, has proven to be a mistake, as former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov argues in the forthcoming issue of The National Interest, because most of Iraq's professional classes had been nominal party members. Rather than decapitating the old regime and absorbing its healthy or useful segments into the new order, the Coalition initially tried to uproot the entire organism, and vastly overestimated the capacity of opposition movements to supply trained personnel and capable leaders as substitutes.
The successful transitions after Manuel Noriega in Panama, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia or Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia all happened because there was an organized opposition in place that commanded popular support and was capable of taking power legitimately, with a minimum of disruption. Significantly, in each of the success stories, the new leadership was able to exercise control over the organs of the previous regime: the military, the ministries, and so on
But the "raw material" for a viable alternative exists, some argue, in the persons of influential exiles such as former political leaders or business tycoons and in the foot soldiers of opposition movements within Eurasian states.
This leads to the second lesson from Iraq: be wary of exiles, and question the motives of those seeking to come to power. The debacle with Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress illustrates all too plainly a principle outlined by Christopher Marsh and Mark Heppner in a recent issue of Nationalities Papers: weak actors such as the INC are all to happy to use strong states such as the United States to achieve their ends, and they are more than prepared to say whatever it takes to secure support. So the Kosovo Albanian leadership eagerly pledged their commitment to uphold "multi-ethnicity", "tolerance" and "pluralism" in the province in order to gain NATO intervention even when, on the ground, they had no interest in preserving a Serbian presence anywhere in Kosovo.
We should be suspicious of any "road-to-Damascus" conversions on the part of political or business leaders who, while in power, had no problem at all with the status quo but whose commitment to democracy, transparency and openness only became apparent after being on the losing side. And we should be prepared to question the motives of any opposition movement: are they really interested in changing the system, or simply displacing the current ruling clan, elite or group so that they can install themselves and their clients in their place?
Simply being an opponent to an existing regime or dictatorial ruler should not be enough. This lesson should have been apparent after the fall of the Soviet Union itself, when it turned out that simply because someone had been a dissident against the communist system did not mean that person was a supporter of liberal democracy.
Eurasia is a region that is simply too critical to global security to be cavalier in proposing "regime changes." Existing regimes may be brutal, dictatorial, authoritarian and inefficient--but risking chaos by trying to destabilize the status quo is foolhardy.
We have been spoiled by Georgia's "Rose Revolution." On the surface, it seemed so easy: a series of street protests bringing down a corrupt old regime and installing a new government promising reform. But the reality is that this change was years in the making.
Even more significantly, Mikheil Saakashvili, the current president, started his career as a protégé of Eduard Shevardnadze, elected to the Georgian Parliament in 1995 and serving as Minister of Justice in 2000-01. Even after declaring his opposition to Shevardnadze, Saakashvili was elected as the chair of the Tbilisi city assembly in 2002 and was able to construct a base for the opposition from within the city government. In essence, the old regime had born and nurtured the children who have replaced it.
So the lesson from Georgia is not that a series of euphoric street protests "brought democracy" to this South Caucasian country, but that an alliance between the disaffected masses and members of the governing elite created sufficient momentum to displace the old guard. In other words, change came from within as much as it was forced from without. The street protest which captured the attention of the world in November 2003 was just the tip of the iceberg.
However, many seemed to have learned the wrong lesson. Captivated by the spectacle of the "Rose Revolution", they have concluded that such revolutions can easily be exported elsewhere, but without the need to lay the foundation that existed in Georgia. Mobilizing "people power" without leadership cadres able to take the reins of government is a recipe for disaster.
It is easy to forget that 30 years ago, East Asian states like South Korea and Taiwan were the "Central Asian stans" of their day, equally denounced for their repressive and authoritarian governments. The vibrancy and strength of Asian democracy today is proof, however, that a strategy of long-term engagement, rather than the search for a short-term fix, is what is needed for Eurasia. And the problems we have encountered in Iraq should only confirm that analysis.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest. This piece appeared originally in UPI's "Outside View" and is used with permission.