Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Crucible

There is a curious tendency on the part of some in the American body politic to put too much emphasis on the notion of elections when defining democracy - at least in the realm of foreign policy. Afghanistan is a recent example. While the fact that Afghanistan was able to conduct an election, that went off relatively peacefully and with some level of legitimacy, is an unmitigated positive (although there are differing appraisals as to the levels of fraud and intimidation) it is not yet clear to what extent a democracy has indeed taken root in the arid soil of that war torn land. Listening to some pundits, you would be left with the impression that elections were all that was needed to dissolve the centuries old problems of ethnic rivalries, de-centralization, corruption, warlordism, drug cultivation, religious factionalization, etc. According to these sanguine voices, elections are tantamount to democracy, and democracy is a panacea. By holding elections, Afghanistan has turned the corner, never to look back again.

History argues against such a rosy prognosis. Elections alone do not constitute a democracy. The maintenance of democracy is a more arduous endeavor than one act of electoral expression. There needs to be a solid foundation of institutions and civic engagement such as a free press, public education, the rule of law, a monopoly on the use of force, feasible economic markets, etc., in order to follow through after the ballots are cast. In most cases, democracy demands at least some of these conditions as a prerequisite to success, and does not allow for ex post facto creation.

Russia's recent totalitarian drift is a classic example of the fragility of democracy, and the chimera that elections can be when the underlying institutional support is not empowered and active. These institutional deficiencies have plagued the Middle East for decades, as a
Carnegie Endowment study summarizes:

The central dilemma of Democratic reform in Arab countries can be summed up fairly simply. Presidents and kings remain too powerful, untrammeled by the limits imposed by effective parliaments and independent judiciaries. Countervailing institutions remain weak, if they exist at all, not only because constitutions and laws deliberately keep them that way, but also because they are not backed by organized citizens demanding political rights, participation, and government accountability. This does not mean that there is no desire for democracy on the part of Arab publics. The demand, or better the desire, for democracy is present in the Arab world today; what is lacking is a supply of broad-based political organizations pushing for democracy—political parties, social movements, labor unions, large civic organizations. Unless such constituencies develop, the future of democracy remains extremely uncertain.
Nevertheless, Bush administration officials, and their allies in the punditry, have been quick to wield the same reductionist brush by exaggerating the significance of the elections slated for Iraq this January. Elections are being used as a synonym for the establishment of democracy as well as a means to cure all that ails Iraq, despite the lack of organizational integrity and infrastructure needed to support civic society. It is dangerous to conflate one election with democracy, and it is even more perilous to assume that the problems that plague Iraq will disappear like so many ballots descending into boxes.

Iraq is uniquely problematic in some respects in that the elections themselves will bring to a head many of the simmering ethnic tensions that have thus far remained under wraps - while the insurgency has raged on in its stead. In an inversion of conventional wisdom, elections could be the precursor to civil war between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who will each be vying for the mantle of power that elections will bestow.

The Shiites are intent on finally exerting their control over a country in which they have been the majority for centuries yet have been permanently disempowered, and brutally repressed, by the rule of the minority Sunni population. Through their de facto leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites are steadfast in their adherence to the scheduled January elections, which they see as a legitimate way to reap the democratic rewards of majority status. The problem is, if the Shiite leadership does not take an enlightened approach to power sharing, the Kurds won't accept the legitimacy of the newly formed government and may act on long held nationalistic desires to secede and form their own state. So too, the Sunnis will reject Shiite dominance and continue to fight in some form or another, continuing to destabilize Iraq.

The quandary presented by modern day Iraq is that there are bitter and historical grievances to settle on the one side of the ethnic divide, and a loss of long held political power on the other. This tension makes it that much more difficult for moderate, conciliatory voices to win out over louder more confrontational ones. In order for peace and cooperation to triumph over sectarian violence, not only must Sistani agree to some form of power sharing that respects minority rights and sensibilities, he must continue to command the obedience of the vast Shiite population who might be tempted by voices calling for reprisals and total control - voices made more alluring by centuries of violence and frustration. Even if successful in his own internal balancing act, Sistani would also need cooperative moderate Sunni and Kurdish counterparts who can maintain the support of their respective populations as they attempt to follow Sistani's lead, assuming he charts such a course in the first place which is not guaranteed. A precarious situation indeed.

While some tidings are grim, I do not agree with
Matthew Yglesias who makes the bold claim that Iraq is already in a state of civil war. I tend to agree with Gregory Djerejian's rebuttal - at least to the extent that he claims that Yglesias is somewhat overstating the current predicament. Perhaps Djerejian, in his own right, is too quick to adopt some form of wishful thinking on the matter however.

In particular, he seems to disregard a disturbing trend in the composition of the Iraqi armed forces. While ethnically diverse and proportionally representative in theory, and to some degree in practice, indications are that the troops most likely to defect to the insurgency or desert their posts are Sunnis. This leaves behind an ethnically polarized contingent of Shiite and Kurd fighting alongside Americans against predominately Sunni insurgents - which could be a harbinger of things to come. The much photographed Iraqi troops used in the most recent Fallujah siege, as well as recent operations in Mosul, were mostly Kurds. Sunnis were not employed given the disastrous results the last time Sunnis were trusted with securing Fallujah, as well as reports of collusion between police forces and insurgents in Mosul.

These ethnic cleavages within the armed forces reinforce animosity, mistrust and a sense of conflict amongst the very groups that will soon have to broach great historical divides and muster the mandates to offer broad concessions and compromises. This is not an environment conducive to success given the delicacy of the negotiations needed.

If Bush administration officials and their supporters are prone to put too much stock in the ameliorative effect of elections, they are not alone. Two articles, via
Juan Cole, reveal some of the, perhaps unrealistic, expectations that the Shiites are placing in the January elections. First Liz Sly from the Chicago Tribune:

"This election, for me, will be the happiest moment in my life, because it means we will end the occupation," said Ahmad al-Asadi, who sells mobile phones from a little store alongside the Kadhimiya mosque, a Shiite shrine.

That's how Shiite leaders are pitching the vote: as a chance to end America's military presence in Iraq peacefully, through the ballot box. It also is a chance for Iraq's long-downtrodden Shiites, who account for 60 percent of the population, to throw off centuries of oppression by the Sunni minority and take a commanding role in the country's government.
And Rory McCarthy from the Guardian:

"We are pushing the government and the political parties very hard so that we can have elections on time," said Jawad al-Maliki, a cultural historian who spent 25 years living in exile and is a senior figure in the large Islamic Dawa party.

"We feel very strongly that this crisis - the coalition forces, the corruption - is all happening because there are no elections in Iraq"...

"We want to take the Americans out of our country through negotiations, not by fighting," said its political leader, Nadeem al-Jabbery, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.

"If we don't have elections or an elected government then the Americans will stay and our problems will continue."
If the Shiite leadership sell the population too hard on the concept that Americans will be leaving soon after the elections, it will be difficult to maintain their support for the presence of large numbers of our troops going forward. But one of the reasons Djerejian gives for why civil war will be averted, and he is right if we can accomplish it, is the fact that we will be maintaining a robust military presence for at least the next four years which should disincentivize ethnic clashes. Responding to Yglesias:

Finally, Matt needs to address (but doesn't) some of the efforts the U.S. will take to stave off a civil war. For one, we've got 140,000 troops on the ground and, again contra Matt's musings, I'm pretty confident that Bush will not declare some victory to assorted gaga red-staters after the Iraqi elections and, just like that, pull out.
Even if Bush has no intention of pulling out, and that is not entirely clear, if the Shiites join the Sunnis in wanting our expulsion from Iraq, the Kurds alone will not be enough to provide the support we need. In which case, some form of civil war would be made more the likely by our absence.

Another drawback to the belief that the implementation of democracy can be achieved through the mere staging of elections is the fact that not all versions of majority rule will result in typically rights-based democratic rule. While not as theocratically inclined as other populations in the region, Iraq's religious leanings present their own unique obstacles. In addition, some recent manifestations of religious fervor may give cause for alarm going forward. Again, to quote the Guardian article:

Although he seeks no political role for himself, the influence of the Iranian-born ayatollah [Sistani] will ensure that the government has a deeply religious character and that Islam is a central tenet of the constitution that must be written next year.

Some will want to introduce an Islamic legal system. Under the temporary constitution supervised by the US occupation authorities earlier this year a compromise was reached: Islam was designated a source for legislation but not the sole source. It is likely that the more conservative Shias will want to change that. In the slum areas of eastern Baghdad where Moqtada al-Sadr holds sway there has already been a dramatic Islamisation of society, setting up new religious schools and requiring schoolgirls to cover their hair.
The inclusion of Shiite religious dogma in the legal framework of Iraq would also increase the likelihood of sectarian violence. If Sistani and his allies get their way by putting a Shiite stamp on the new Iraqi state, the Sunni mindset, already embittered over the loss of power, may be pushed beyond the tipping point.

In a bid to ensure Shiites vote as a bloc, [Sistani] is organizing a coalition of major Shiite parties that will present a unified slate of candidates...

Almost all of those on the list will be religiously oriented parties, whose goals include the Islamization of Iraq in accordance with Shiite practices.

That is one reason that so many Sunni Arabs, who account for about 20 percent of the population, are wary of the election. Not only can they expect to see their traditional dominance of Iraqi politics eroded, they also fear being forced to submit to a Shiite form of Islam that they fiercely oppose.
This aspect of the story is, in some ways, most troubling. Sunni opposition to Shiite religious doctrine should not be underestimated. Compelled acquiescence to Shiite teachings would be the equivalent of heresy to many deeply religious Sunnis. Fighting back would be seen as the only possible recourse, making civil war inevitable.

While the hope is that elections will be a symbolic and somewhat important logistical first step toward the creation of a democratic society in Iraq, it would be foolish to equate January's ballot exercise with the existence of democracy, or the establishment of peace and stability in Iraq. The elections will mean something, but that meaning will evaporate if the various competing factions are not able to find an acceptable plan for co-existence in the aftermath. In that respect, the elections will present the crucible, not the end game.

[Update: Praktike, arguing that Yglesias might be correct in describing the current state of affairs a civil war, points to an article that details the magnitude and ubiquity of the Sunni/Shiite tension, violence and confrontations already occurring in parts of Iraq. Perhaps I am being stubborn by clinging to hope, or maybe it is a matter of semantics, but I still don't consider this a full blown civil war, and think such large scale civil conflict can be averted. This article offers no solace, however. Only more cause for pessimism.

On the other side of the debate, Gregory Djerejian links to an article by James Joyner that teases out the semantics issue, and takes a more optimistic stance. My issue with the Joyner piece is that part of his prescription for success is based on the assumption, or hope, that the government which assumes power post-January will adopt the minority rights provisions of Iraq's Interim Constitution. Unfortunately, Sistani and other Shiite leaders have already expressed deep misgivings about ceding as much going forward. Joyner may be correct if Sistani and the Shiites can overcome their own impulses to consolidate power, but there is a very real possibility that they will not be so magnanimous, in which case civil war would be made more likely.]

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