Exporting Democracy and the Case of Iraq

Detractors of the war in Iraq say we have been bogged down in another Vietnam and we have simply made matters worse. Critics cite the escalating violence and bloodshed, and say things were better under Saddam. They imply that a “peace” maintained by a police state is preferable to a freedom that verges on anarchy and mayhem.

Such points can be debated at length. For example, it can be argued that what we see happening now in Iraq is simply the boil-over of centuries-old ethnic and religious conflict. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have been at each other’s throats for ages, and tensions, hatred and hostility are not removed overnight. And all this is compounded by terrorist insurgents, many of whom are coming in from neighbouring countries.

But one major issue in the whole debate is whether democracy is in fact exportable. Should the West seek to set up democracies around the world, and can such an undertaking work in cultures where there has been no history of freedom and democracy? Japan seems to be one such example, but it may be the exception to the rule.

Recent books exploring this issue include The Universal Hunger for Liberty by Michael Novak and The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky, both penned in 2004. The debate is not new however. Back in 1991 Joshua Muravchik wrote a book called Exporting Democracy. There have been optimists and pessimists in this debate, and it is a debate worth pursuing.

But back to Iraq. Was it wise to seek to turn Saddam’s totalitarian regime into a free and prosperous democracy? Are some people simply not ready for democracy? Are certain peoples and cultures simply not adaptable to Western values? Geopolitical analyst William Tucker explores some of these issues in a new article in the American Spectator (October 3, 2006).

With an intriguing title, “Iraq: A Mistake Worth Making,” he argues that it is worth taking stock of the invasion of Iraq, and asking some hard questions: “My judgment is that in certain respects the invasion can now be called a mistake. But it was a mistake worth making. We have learned a lot. We are going to be in confrontation with Islam for a long, long time, perhaps the better part of this century, and it isn’t surprising we should get a few things wrong in the opening rounds. The invasion hasn’t made things worse, as some people are now contending. But there have been misjudgments and we shouldn’t make them again.”

The main mistake, argues Tucker, was the belief that a backwater nation like Iraq could be transformed into a free and modern culture overnight: “The biggest mistake was to romanticize the Iraq Shi’ia and convince ourselves that they were a population ready to adopt democracy as soon as they were liberated from Saddam Hussein. Go back through the pages of the Weekly Standard and you will find Stephen Schwartz and Reuel Marc Gerecht making the same old argument – the Shi’ia will welcome us as liberators. Even in Sunday’s New York Post, Schwartz was still portraying the Shi’ia as the good Muslims while the Sunni are the bad Muslims, financed, of course, by Saudi Arabia.”

Mind you, there was some basis of optimism: “It is true that the Iraq Shi’ite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has labored mightily to guide his followers on a peaceful course. He should have easily won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In the end, however, the Shi’ia have preferred Muqtada al-Sadr and his armed militia. It is much more traditional in Muslim culture. And so we have civil war instead. (Remember, our supposed Shi’ite allies are the same people who gave us the Ayatollah Khomeini and nuclear Iran.)”

Another mistake was to believe that only the poor and uneducated seek to become jihadists. Upon closer inspection, however, “you will find highly educated scholars from all over the Arab world showing up in Afghanistan to fill the jihad brigades. Alongside them were oil millionaires with suitcases full of money, eager to join the cause. Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with poverty or lack of education. Just the opposite, it is an ecstatic spiritual pilgrimage for people unsatisfied with banality of ordinary life – very similar to the glorified ambitions of affluent student radicals in our own culture.”

The truth is, not all cultures are equal, and not all are ready for democratic government: “So we are in a long-term battle with another civilization, one that is remarkably different from ours, has a strong penchant for endless violence, and isn’t going to leave us alone. The last time we were in this kind of confrontation was with Japan during World War II. Although it is not much remembered, Americans in the Pacific Theater perceived themselves to be fighting a completely different breed of human being.”

The barbaric nature of the Japanese soldiers was a shock to those fighting against them. “The Japanese eventually reverted to kamikaze attacks, but suicidal commitment was persistent throughout the war. One of the things that terrified American soldiers was that Japanese soldiers would not surrender but fought to the last man. At Guadalcanal only a handful of the 30,000 Japanese defending the island allowed themselves to be captured. The ratio of killed-to-captured was generally about 120-to-1, as opposed to 4-to-1 in European wars.”

The fanaticism and hatred of the Japanese seemed to many to make the Germans appear quite human by contrast. Many soldiers remarked that they would rather fight the Nazis than the Japanese.

As I mentioned before, Japan today is quite a different story. “The Japanese were, at the time, a ‘pre-modern’ culture in which the individual is almost entirely submerged in the group. Suicide and the fanaticism we associate with totalitarianism came naturally. This cycle was only broken with the dropping of the atomic bomb and complete surrender. When the American conquerors proved not to be so merciless as advertised, the Japanese quickly adjusted and became a successful modern civilization.”

So Japan did make the change. But can Iraq and other Islamic nations? “What are the same chances of this ever happening with Islam? Not very good at the moment. Not very good at all. The Islamic world is much larger, more diffuse, and much more deeply ingrained in a culture of violent group fanaticism. Its inhabitants are not going to give up jihad for a long, long time, if ever. Nor do they want to. In a way, the Iranians might do us a favor by developing their own atomic weapons. Then we could engage in the ‘mutually assured destruction’ that kept the Soviets at bay for four decades. Unfortunately, given the record of Islamic fundamentalism, there is no guarantee that Iran wouldn’t drop the bomb on Israel, even if it meant their whole county would be wiped off the map in retaliation. Martyrdom is fatally woven into Islamic thought.”

Tucker argues that instead of claiming that we somehow encouraged terrorism by going to Iraq, we should be more realistic, and see what actual good has come out of the war: “All this enables us to see through the current argument that invading Iraq has somehow encouraged Muslim fanaticism. The fanaticism was there long before we invaded and will be there long after we’re gone. Any culture that can get upset over cartoons needs no provocation. Instead, we should count the enormous positive consequences of the invasion – Libya’s abandonment of terrorism, the breaking up of Pakistan’s nuclear cabal, the setback to jihadists as they are forced to fight on their own territory.”

He concludes by asking some questions about how we should proceed in Iraq. What should be done is of course the million dollar question. “But let’s start by acknowledging both our accomplishments and our mistakes. We are not building a ‘little America’ over there. Islamic culture was violent long before we arrived and will continue to be so long after we’re gone. But we have gained considerable ground in protecting America and in ensuring that we do not find ourselves surrounded by a ring of terrorist states.”


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2 Replies to “Exporting Democracy and the Case of Iraq”

  1. Simply impossible. The Athenian experiment at democracy was a historical blip. Magna Carta, far from being a landmark in the history of D, was little more than a cosy arrangement between a corrupt king and self-serving nobles.

    D had no real opportunity to appear until the Bible was translated into, and made available in, the language of the common man, most notably by Martin Luther. Germans learnt that rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, are equal in God’s sight, with no need for pope, priest or any other human mediator between God and man.

    D’s late appearance in Roman Catholic countries has many causes, but one must be the reservation of the scriptures until after Vatican 2.

    D begins with freedom in the heart, the liberty we have in Christ. Paul warned the Galatian church against interpreting liberty as licence, and sure enough societies influenced by the gospel show how perverse mankind is in its eclectic version of freedom. This is one indication of the vitality of freedom, even when its source is ignored or denied. It’s like plants that will transplant as cuttings.

    If D is ultimately Bible-based, a gift of God’s grace, how paradoxical it is that avowed Bible believers such as GW Bush and Tony Blair can suppose that it can be imposed on Iraq or any other Muslim country, long on law and very short on grace.

    Ken Clezy, Burnie TAS

  2. Thanks Ken

    Of course the Christian doctrine of common grace may come into play here. Thus there seem to be at least a few non-Christian-based democracies around. Japan, India and a few other states may be cases in point. Secular/Muslim Turkey as well, to an extent. But your points are noted.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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