Democracy? In Iraq?

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
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With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, politicians, pundits, and scholars have turned their attention toward the task of political reconstruction in Iraq. Can Iraqis, or their American occupiers, build a viable, democratic regime from the rubble of Baathist rule?

So far, the Bush administration has sounded bullish: Secretary of State Colin Powell recently looked forward “to the day when a democratic, representative government at peace with its neighbors leads Iraq to rejoin the family of nations,” and President Bush personally expressed the belief that democracy could flourish in Iraq in the wake of a U.S. invasion. Even more ambitiously, other administration officials have suggested that regime change in Iraq could trigger reform across the Arab world, with a newly democratic Iraq serving as a model for other countries in the region.

Such arguments about the potential democratization of Iraq have been accompanied by references to the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan, which occupation forces effectively remade into liberal-democratic allies of the United States. From this point of view, Iraq is either ready for democracy now or can be made so relatively rapidly under U.S. tutelage. Skeptics have drawn parallels to recent failures of nation-building in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, Kosovo, Somalia, and elsewhere. From their perspective, U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iraq are doomed to failure.

Who is right? How realistic is the notion that Iraq will become a democracy after Anglo-American occupation? What sort of impact can the United States expect to have on Iraq’s political trajectory? And, whatever the odds, what steps might improve the chances that democracy will survive? We argue that Iraq is unlikely to sustain democratic institutions, even given protracted U.S. occupation. At the same time, we argue that U.S. efforts are not completely hopeless: A series of measures adopted under American occupation would make democracy substantially more likely.

Assessing the Odds

In the last issue of this journal, Larry Diamond wrote:

It is possible—just possible—that Iraq could gradually develop into a democracy, but the task is huge and the odds are long against it. . . . The social, economic, and political conditions for establishing democracy in Iraq are far from favorable.

We agree; if anything, we find Diamond’s view fairly optimistic. Iraq has few of the success factors associated with democracy, such as a high degree of economic development and a Western cultural tradition.

To reach this unfortunate conclusion, we assessed how democratic a country with Iraq’s “social, economic, and political conditions” might be expected to be. We first measured levels of democracy in 186 different countries on a numerical scale during 1996–2000, using data compiled by Freedom House. On this scale, countries such as the United States, Sweden, and Costa Rica scored highest (12 out of a possible 12). At the other end of the spectrum, Iraq under Saddam Hussein scored lowest (zero)—a distinction it shared with countries such as Afghanistan (under the Taliban), Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. Most nations, of course, fell somewhere in between these extremes; Colombia and Russia, for instance, score close to the middle, indicating that their governments are neither fully democratic nor wholly totalitarian.

For all 186 countries we then gathered measurements of the factors that political scientists have traditionally associated with democracy: literacy; per capita income; socioeconomic inequality; ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions; past experience with democratic government; history as a British colony; size and geography; whether a country is an energy exporter; whether a country has been involved in a recent war; the percentage of the population that is Muslim; and the region of the world in which a country is located. In general, richer, more literate, more egalitarian, and more homogenous societies do better at establishing and sustaining democratic governance, as do small island states with a history of British or American rule. By contrast, petro-states, countries with mainly Muslim populations, and nations with little cultural affinity for the West all tend to be less democratic.

When we consider all the factors discussed above, we find that a country with Iraq’s profile ought to fall somewhere between a zero and a two on the democracy scale. In other words, given what political scientists know about the causes of democracy, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was more or less what one would expect. It thus seems far-fetched to expect that Iraq would become a free society if left to its own devices.


Assessing the U.S. Impact

Of course, post-Saddam Iraq will not be left to its own devices; it will be occupied by U.S. and other pro-democratic forces. The next logical question, then, is how occupation might affect Iraq’s political prospects. We approach this puzzle in much the same way as we did our analysis of democracy in general: by attempting to measure the impact of U.S. occupation on a country’s long-term political development.

By our count, the United States has occupied or helped to occupy 19 countries in the last century with the goal of reshaping their political system. These include Afghanistan, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Grenada, Haiti, Japan, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, the Philippines, Somalia, South Korea, and South Vietnam. Democratization was not always the most important goal behind these occupations, but in all of these cases, U.S. forces attempted to leave behind something resembling a set of democratic institutions. In about half of these cases, democratic institutions lasted; in the others, they did not.

The scope and duration of occupation differed substantially, so it is not an easy matter to assess how transformative or thorough the experience of U.S. rule actually was. One simplistic way to do so is to divide the 19 cases into two groups: (1) those where intervention was truncated or incomplete and (2) those where the United States stayed for a reasonably long period of time and made a concerted attempt to

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restructure the country’s political and social systems. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Grenada, Somalia, and South Korea fall into the first group. By contrast, Austria, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Haiti, Japan, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, the Philippines, and South Vietnam clearly experienced more thoroughgoing and protracted occupation. Because our measures of democracy pre-date the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and because it is too soon to tell what will come from the allied occupation, we exclude that case from our discussion.

Contrary to what might be expected, the impact of the United States is not particularly impressive. On average, countries in the second category score only about one and a half points higher on the democracy scale than countries that were never occupied. Countries that were occupied briefly actually score a couple of points lower.

When we take into account the other factors discussed above, such as a country’s level of economic development and its cultural affinity with the West, even the impact of protracted occupation fades into insignificance. In other words, the countries that became democratic after U.S. occupation were already much more likely to become so; the countries that failed to become democratic were always unlikely to make the transition. At best, U.S. occupation seems to exercise only a modest and indirect influence on a country’s long-term political development. There is, alas, little evidence on which to base a hope that the Anglo-American occupation will dramatically change the prospects for democracy in Iraq.


Taking the Right Steps

Of course, long odds against democracy should not be an excuse to give up on Iraq altogether. Even if Iraq is unlikely to sustain fully democratic institutions, the degree to which future governments are more or less repressive could vary tremendously. The degree of political openness found in Jordan or Kuwait, for instance, is well worth striving for, even though neither country is a democracy. Even if American efforts fall short of full democratization, the United States may be able to leave Iraqis substantially better off than they were before the invasion.

There is another reason not to give up: We know vastly more today than we did several decades ago about what makes democracy succeed. If these lessons are kept in mind, U.S. efforts to establish democracy may thus prove much more effective than they did in, say, Nicaragua during the 1920s or South Vietnam during the 1960s. In particular, Americans would do well to consider the following steps:

1. Avoid the curse of oil. One of the biggest dangers facing postwar Iraq is the prospect of its becoming a classic petro-state (such as Nigeria, Libya, or Venezuela), in which vast revenues from the sale of oil accrue to a politically shaky and unrepresentative national government. To avoid such problems, Iraq should adopt some version of the Alaska model, in which each citizen would receive a direct payment from oil revenues. The effects of this system would be to put the country’s wealth directly into the hands of Iraqis, to remove discretionary authority from the national government, and to establish the relationship between taxation and spending that characterizes normal states.

2. Choose parliamentarism over presidentialism. In developing countries, presidential systems tend to concentrate too much power in the hands of one individual, who may then be tempted to ride roughshod over other political actors. Consequently, European-style parliamentary systems are more likely to survive than those that rely on a directly elected chief executive. America encouraged the defeated Axis powers to adopt parliamentary systems; it should do the same in Iraq today.

3. Adopt a federal system. Although unitary (non-federal) systems may offer certain advantages in administrative efficiency and policy efficacy, in countries with deep, geographically based divisions, some degree of federalism can help democracy succeed. For this reason, Iraq should follow the example of many other democratizing countries by investing state and local governments with real power. Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center, and Shia Arabs in the south could all be given substantial autonomy within their domains; for the Kurds, in particular, such an arrangement is probably crucial to preventing irredentist rebellion. The process of forming local governments can start now, before any national system is fully constituted.

4. Create an electoral branch of government. In any political transition, the first few electoral contests are crucial to democratic success. These founding elections teach political actors to channel their energies into vote-getting, rather than into more polarizing or destructive styles of participation. The initial role of conducting and overseeing elections should rightly fall to foreigners, but eventually the task must be turned over to Iraqis. To this end, Iraq will need a virtual fourth branch of government charged with administering elections. The heads of this supreme electoral authority should be chosen by a two-thirds vote in the congress and given enough funding from domestic or foreign sources to ensure their technical capacity.

5. Draw electoral districts the right way. The way electoral districts are drawn can play an important role in moderating ethnic divisions and in shaping the way that political parties develop. Perhaps the best approach would be to divide Iraq into a relatively small number of large districts, whose boundaries matched those of Iraq’s three major ethnic groupings (Kurd, Sunni Arab, and Shia Arab). Such a system would promote cross-cutting cleavages and help prevent the emergence of any permanent majority. For instance, a party that purported to represent Shia Arabs might do well in districts drawn across major ethnic lines because Shia Arabs in the district might pool their votes to support it against a non-Shia opponent. But in our system, all voters and candidates in a given district would be Shia Arab, so electoral mobilization based on Shia identity would make little sense. At the same time, any political figure who thought that she could win just a small percentage of the vote would have a strong incentive to set up a new party that could siphon votes away from the main Shia party. Electoral politics would thus come to reflect a range of identities—religious, linguistic, class, clan, policy oriented, and so forth—rather than any one polarized division.

6. Ensure civilian control of the military. Most democracies that collapse do so because government officials with guns (i.e., the security forces) seize power from government officials without guns (i.e., civilian politicians). The specter of military rule looms large in a country like Iraq, with a long history of coups and attempted coups. Although there is no single formula for doing so, the experiences of countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea suggest the following steps: (a) limit the size of the military overall, especially the army; (b) purge the officer corps of those responsible for gross violations of human rights and integrate Shia and Kurdish troops; (c) civilianize any intelligence services, military-run companies, and the defense department; and (d) explicitly confine the military’s official mission to external defense, leaving internal security and law enforcement to civilian police.

7. Build a free press. In most developing countries, mass media are controlled by politicized state monopolies (Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia) or private oligarchs who trade favorable coverage for political influence (Latin America). Such a sad state of affairs can be avoided by placing state-owned media under the direction of professionalized, politically insulated boards, whose own appointments require supermajorities in the legislature, and by creating a system for allocating private broadcasting concessions that is likewise insulated from direct executive control. In addition, a variety of legal protections for the press—including laws on freedom of information and the protection of the confidentiality of journalistic sources—can help create mass media capable of fulfilling their watchdog role.


In the end, it is unlikely that Iraq will become a full-fledged democracy on the American or European mold in the near future. That said, certain institutions may well survive once occupation forces leave the country. Even if Iraq becomes a semi-authoritarian state, Iraqis will remain substantially better off than they were under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Drawing on the experiences of the last several decades can help ensure that outcome.