Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Is Iraqi democracy made in Washington?

Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker wonders if Bush (and/or his people) didn't try to manipulate the Iraqi election earlier this year. Like all of Hersh's work, it's a fascinating and persuasive read, but I'm just not sure if I buy it all. Have a look yourselves, and, if possible, leave your comments here. I'm curious to know what you all think of it. Here's a key passage:

By the late spring of 2004, according to officials in the State Department, Congress, and the United Nations, the Bush Administration was engaged in a debate over the very issue that [C.P.A. senior advisor Larry] Diamond had warned about: providing direct support to Allawi and other parties seen as close to the United States and hostile to Iran. Allawi, who had spent decades in exile and worked both for Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat and for Western intelligence agencies, lacked strong popular appeal. The goal, according to several former intelligence and military officials, was not to achieve outright victory for Allawi—such an outcome would not be possible or credible, given the strength of the pro-Iranian Shiite religious parties—but to minimize the religious Shiites’ political influence. The Administration hoped to keep Allawi as a major figure in a coalition government, and to do so his party needed a respectable share of the vote.

If true, there's yet more ammunition for Bush's critics. But here's the perplexing question: Even if it's all true, does it matter?

Which is to say, doesn't democracy need some "direction" to get it going? Machiavelli understood that republics don't form ex nihilo, that a republic needs a strong and virtuous prince to set up its modes and orders before it can maintain itself through self-government. Indeed, one wonders what would have happened if American democracy had been so open and transparent back in the 1770s and 1780s.

After all, English democracy has taken centuries to develop into what it is today, from the Magna Carta through the Glorious Revolution through the establishment of liberalism in the 19th century. Did we really expect Iraq to become democratic so soon and without anything in the way of American intervention? We may object to what Bush did and to how he did it, not to mention to what's going on today, but let's not be so naive.

(Thanks to Laura Rozen at War and Piece for the tip -- see here.)

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  • Which Edward Elgar composition?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:33 AM  

  • I'm skeptical of Hersh. I know he gets kudos about his reporting, but a lot of his stuff seems over the top and related to his politics. He always puts the worst possible spin on actions by officials with which he disagrees (and that seems to be almost everyone).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:45 PM  

  • Yes, Marc, and that's what I take away from this piece. He makes a persuasive case, but the spin is clear. He may in fact be a great reporter, but there's a difference between reporting and presenting a report. Woodward is often criticized for lacking the big picture (or even much in the way of substance), but that might be what makes him such a respected reporter. It's hard to know with Hersh may not be "fixing" the facts, but he may be "fixing" how he presents those facts around a predetermined political take. Here, he may be right that Bush wanted Allawi to win, but it's still not clear to me if what the U.S. did was wrong. Should the U.S. have been totally neutral? This begs the questions of just what we mean by democracy. We all want democracy, but democracy often leads to demagoguery. What we really want is liberal democracy, but that requires a much more mature political culture than Iraq's. It seems to me that a quasi-democratic leader who can help move Iraq towards liberal democracy is preferably to democracy in a vacuum.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 3:06 PM  

  • Ah but you forget, Mr. Stickings, that non-interference is the sine qua non of free and fair elections. Fixing or influencing an election are therefore only ethically wrong if you believe in Democracy and self-determination. I'm one of those old-fashioned Americans, for instance, who happen to believe in just that. But ethical issues aside, there are good reasons not to have interfered in the Iraqi elections, Realpolitik-wise - by having done so, and having been caught at it (if we did interfere), we piss off Iraqis (none of whom are going to appreciate foreign interference, regardless of their ideology), and lost even more credibility around the world when we talk about spreading Democracy. This (if true) is a blow to our soft power, just when we need as much soft power as we can get. As for the "democracy takes a long time" argument, I used to agree with you on that, but recently I've come to the view that that only makes sense if you think of democracy as a progression from dictatorship to elections. That view is way too linear: most dictators who allow elections don't continue the reforms if they mean a loss of control. Similarly in your expressed view, the American tyrant (so to speak) allows elections, but interferes so as to control the outcome - the difference between our actions and Saddam's 'elections' is in degree and not in kind. Democracy doesn't develop except through democratic experience.

    By Blogger Padraig, at 5:03 PM  

  • If a government that is a democracy is doing a good job, they look at all the possibilities. And I am not enthusiastic, to put it mildly, with the choices our President has made. However, good problem solving often requires looking at every option we are faced with and to discuss the merits and drawbacks of each option. I like what Hersh writes and he usually tells it the way it is and his bias is obvious, but still the stories are believable. The main focus we should all have is that this President chose NOT to be involved in the elections, and this is one right decision he has made in his 5 years in office that I can recollect.

    By Blogger Charles Amico, at 5:28 PM  

  • By Blogger haydar, at 11:03 AM  

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