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Would the United States Really Like a Democratic Iraq? (It Should)

One of the justifications U.S. hawks give for going to war with Iraq is that an American victory would allow it to set up a democratic post-Saddam regime. Those on the Right who have made this argument seldom know that constitutional monarchies were common in the Middle East in the first half of the twentieth century and that they failed.

Why were the liberal regimes so fragile in the end? What can their failure tell us about how best to pursue democratization today?

Three problems bedeviled these parliamentary governments.

The first was over-concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very small elite. A few thousand families owned most of Egypt's land in the 1920s through the 1940s, and they were the ones who controlled the major parties. The same was true of Iraq and Iran. Parliamentary politics was not a game for the people, but for the wealthy elite, who used it to further their interests. Labor unions were often either controlled by the party of the elite or banned. Liberalism came to be discredited in the eyes of the masses as a result. The military governments of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt and Iraq made themselves popular with land reform and other policies that spread the wealth around.

The second was the power-hungry actions of unpopular monarchs. Egypt's King Fuad tinkered with the constitution in the early 1930s to give himself ever more power. His successor, King Faruq, was hated as an effete playboy. The shah in Iran dueled with his nationalist parliament in the early 1950s, provoking a constitutional crisis. The monarchy in Iraq was an artificial creation of the British, who rewarded the Hashemite King Faisal for allying with them during WW I by giving him a kingdom far from his native western Arabia, where his family had no ties.

The third was Western imperial meddling. The British intervened forcefully in both Egypt and Iraq during World War II. This action was necessary to face the Axis threat, especially in Iraq where high-ranking officers had pro-German sentiments. Still, the cooperation of the Egyptian Wafd Party and Iraqi politicians such as Nuri Said with renewed British control weakened their popular legitimacy and paved the way for military coups. The Americans overthrew the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq, because he had nationalized Iran's oil industry.

Any new wave of democracy in the Middle East would have to avoid the destabilizing effects of these past errors.

Only policies that made sure that all sections of the population benefited from opportunities for meaningful political participation and economic advance could convince the person in the street that the new regime was not just another oligarchy. In Iraq, this would mean that the desperately poor Shiite south would have to get new resources, as would the rural Kurds.

A parliament would not be enough. Active grassroots democracy with wide levels of political participation would be necessary to make the case that the new government belonged to everyone. In Iraq, only federalism and a formal separation of religion and state could ensure justice for both Sunnis and Shi`ites, not to mention the Chaldean Christians.

A renewed Hashemite monarchy in Iraq would be a disaster. A monarch would attempt to arrogate power to himself, as do all the current Middle Eastern kings. He would thus weaken the prime minister and parliament and open them to eventual overthrow. The Hashemites never had any legitimate claim on Iraq, and such a king would be viewed as a creature of Western imperialism.

The U.S. would have to avoid attempting to micro-manage the new government, and would have to acquiesce if a party and prime minister came to power it did not like. A post-Saddam Iraq would have a Shi`ite majority that might favor Iran or Hizbullah. A populist Arab nationalist able to put together a coalition of Sunnis and Shi`ites might be an outspoken critic of U.S. policy on the Palestine issue. Such a voice would have to be allowed, and heard. Covert U.S. manipulation of elections or undue pressure on Iraqi politicians would backfire badly.

The U.S. has yet to demonstrate that it can foster democracy in the Muslim world. It is still cozy with dictators. In Afghanistan, popular sovereignty is only a vague dream and a medieval version of Islamic law is being imposed. Pakistan's General Musharraf has unilaterally amended the constitution 29 times and given himself a five-year term as "president," with the right to dismiss parliament at any time. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak recently had human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim sentenced to seven years in prison. All these governments are close American allies.

The American Right's romance with small, powerful elites, with dictators or renewed monarchies, and with heavy-handed U.S. influence in the region may lead Washington to repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the age of colonialism.