Saturday, January 29, 2005

Our choices in Iraq 

I'm currently reading James C Bennett's "The Anglosphere Challenge" and on page 34 I chanced upon this observation:
"When civil society reaches a certain degree of complexity, democracy typically emerges. Absent that civil society, importing the mechanisms of democracy - the forms and rituals - results only in creating one more set of spoils for families and groups to fight over at the expense of the rest of society."
It's a fair argument and it has been frequently made by both left-wing and right-wing realists of what they consider to be starry-eyed schemes to export democracy to far corners of the world. The critics rightly point out that the most successful democracies (mostly the Western ones) are those where the democratic system emerges after a long period of organic growth. For democracy to succeed, the mental foundations have to be constructed well in advance of the coming of the democratic institutions. Democracy, after all, is more than just filling out a ballot paper every three years; it's a collection of habits, sentiments and behaviors, such as tolerance, trust, accountability, responsibility or social solidarity.

Most recently we have seen such organic democratic development taking place in Asian countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, where decades of growth of middle class and civil society eventually resulted in a democratic push and liberalization. The Middle East, on the other hand, and in particular now Iraq, present a far bigger challenge. Hence the foreboding chorus of opinion so vocal today that democracy in Iraq won't take root, that the country is not ready, that it has no democratic traditions and therefore little to sustain democracy at least throughout the near future.

All this is true - Iraqi middle class is small, civil society almost non-existent (albeit slowly rebuilding) after decades of oppression, the country riven by ethnic, religious and tribal divisions, its citizenry suffering from what I have earlier described as the Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder.

So why insist on trying to sow a democratic seed on such a seemingly infertile soil? Because we have no time and therefore no choice.

We cannot afford to sit back for hundreds of years and watch if liberal democracy will grow as it did throughout the English-speaking world. We cannot even afford to wait a few decades to see if the accelerated Asian model takes root in Iraq. Thirty years of rule by benevolent despots who promote economic growth and development - even if it made sense - is simply not an option here. The only alternatives are the return to the pre-September 11 Middle Eastern status quo or a bold attempt at democracy.

I support the election not because I think they will solve Iraq's problems, certainly not in short or even medium term, or because I think that a fully developed liberal democracy will suddenly spring up on the shores of Tigris and Euphrates after people put their votes in the ballot boxes for the first time in half a century.

I support the election because I believe that an attempt at building democracy, however imperfect, flawed and disappointing is not only the best option - it's our only real option.


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