Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hailed last week’s Iraqi election as a “historic turning point.” However, the final results will undoubtedly show that the election amounted to an ethnic census—not a promising basis on which to form a stable, democratic government.
Divided societies like Iraq require more than just elections and majority rule to establish a stable democracy. The Shiites and Kurds cannot govern together while excluding the Sunnis and expect the insurgency to end. All major groups must have a stake in the system in order for it to function.
Naturally, establishing a consensus-style government with appeal for all major groups requires compromise. The Bush Administration has correctly attempted to cajole both Shiites and Kurds into concessions in the hope of giving Sunnis an interest in a democratic Iraq. However, the mutual trust and the willingness to compromise vital to the success of a consensus-style government are completely lacking.
Other divided nations face similar problems. “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland began after decades of democratic majority rule by Protestants over Catholics. Decades of efforts to construct a government in which both sides would share power peacefully have blossomed very slowly. The Northern Irish Assembly created by the Good Friday Agreement is not operational though violence has abated. Catholics and Protestants still vote overwhelmingly for separate political parties.
Just like in Iraq and Northern Ireland, Bosnians also routinely vote for ethnically-based parties. Bosnia’s referendum on independence amounted to an ethnic plebiscite. Muslims and Croats voted in favor while Serbs boycotted the exercise. The resulting three-sided civil war did not lessen ethnic tensions.
Since the signing of the Dayton Accord over a decade ago, outside forces have maintained the peace and forced the parties to participate in Bosnia’s consensus-style government. Bosnians nevertheless remain afraid to visit areas not under the control of “their” group. This rickety peace depends on the continuing presence of outside arbiters backed by force.
The rationale for war in Iraq was different than in Bosnia. Yet the project of constructing a stable, democratic government is similar even if far more ambitious. Iraq is much larger. The lack of major allies other than the United Kingdom places the brunt of the effort firmly on the United States. Unlike in Eastern Europe, the U.S. cannot hold out the promise of EU membership as an incentive to take a democratic path. There are no models of democratic government in the Arab world.
The dominant system of government is instead of one group using force to grab power. Even the Shiites and the Kurds, initially supportive of American intervention, seem increasingly unhappy with the American presence because it foils their efforts to take power in the traditional manner. Shiites are frustrated that we won’t let them chase down the Sunnis. Kurds would like to expel Arab settlers brought into their region by Saddam Hussein as a prelude to secession. Of course, the Sunnis oppose any federalist compromise which would ratify the end of their dominance.
The insurgency in Iraq may have its source less in anti-Americanism than from the first steps in an ethnically-based civil war. After all, more Iraqis have than Americans have died in insurgent attacks. Many of the attacks are directed at Iraqi targets located away from American activities.
The high levels of turnout combined with low levels of violence impressed observers of last week’s elections and spurred hope that the Iraqi political scene is not quite so bleak. However, heightened ethnic mobilization rather than a growing acceptance of democratic norms explains the high rates of participation.
As Northern Ireland and Bosnia demonstrate, creating stable, democratic government in Iraq will require an American commitment of decades, not years, and may still not succeed. Establishing government institutions giving all major groups an incentive to solve conflicts through government rather than violence—a benchmark Iraq has yet to achieve—is only a first step. Stable, democratic government demands some minimal degree of trust and commitment.
The Administration’s efforts to promote democracy in Iraq are highly laudable. The ultimate failure of democracy in Iraq may not result from any of the inevitable missteps, exacerbated by the Administration’s unwillingness to listen to any helpful advice. The goal of a democratic Iraq may elude the finest efforts because the great difficulty of the task may exceed the willingness of Americans to undertake it.