What’s wrong with this picture? The world’s sole remaining superpower mounts a campaign to depose a brutal dictator and bring democracy to his long-suffering nation. The superpower commits billions of dollars to rebuilding the country, and struggles to fashion an indigenous government reflecting the complex identity and aspirations of its people. The result is a wave of guerrilla attacks, terrorist bombings and kidnappings that undercuts the superpower’s capacity to promote democracy and economic progress.
That’s the situation in Iraq today. But the key thing to understand about what’s wrong with the picture is that I could also be talking about the other two places where America has recently waged war, Afghanistan and former Yugoslavia. All three countries suffer from the same political malady — arbitrary borders that force diverse ethnic and sectarian groups to co-exist within the same country. Not surprisingly, such countries tend to be dictatorships, because that’s what’s required to hold them together.
Iraq is a puzzle for proponents of democracy mainly because it is the place where western Sunni Muslims have been battling eastern Shiite Muslims for centuries, and ethnic identities are closely aligned with religious convictions. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire understood that, and governed the area as three separate provinces — a predominantly Sunni Kurdish province run from Mosul in the north, a predominantly Sunni Arab province run from Baghdad in the center, and a predominantly Shiite Arab province run from Basra in the south.
Britain upset that arrangement by trying to fashion a unified Iraq after World War One. Within a few years it faced a revolt that had to be forcibly suppressed. The British general election of 1922 featured calls for Britain the “get out of Mesopotamia,” and newspaper editorializing about the heavy cost of commitments there. Much of Iraq’s history since then has been a depressing chronicle of one dictator after another governing on the basis of tribal, ethnic and religious ties. Saddam was no exception.
So does that mean the people of Iraq can’t sustain democracy? No, it doesn’t. The close alignment of ethnic and religious identities provides a powerful basis for political community. But each of the three major ethnic groups needs its own polity, rather than trying to coexist in a consensual form of government with its historic enemies.
The core problem in Iraq today isn’t foreign fighters and it isn’t opportunists like Moktada al-Sadr. It’s the unwillingness of Sunni Arabs with ties to the former Baathist regime to live under a government likely to be dominated by Shia — Shia who were oppressed by Saddam even though they were 60% of the population. The fears of Sunni Arabs in Iraq today are similar to the fears of Orthodox Serbs in former Yugoslavia. A similar solution –partition — is probably the only way to fashion durable democracies. Fortunately, Iraq has enough oil to grease the path from one debacle to three democracies.
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