Iraq After Saddam
August 24, 2002
by Max Singer
There was much handwringing in the Senate hearing room last week and in the pages of the New York Times about how to create decent government in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime is removed. This task wouldn’t be such a great mystery if we were willing to take the Iraqi opposition movement—the Iraqi National Congress (INC)—seriously. They started working on this problem years ago, talking in good democratic fashion to Iraqis from all factions and ethnic groups. They have produced a 27-page “Iraq Transition Program” which is posted in Arabic and English on their website, www.inc.org.uk.
The INC has nearly ten years of experience building cooperation and consensus among all elements of Iraqi society—except the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein. For the first four years they operated in the open in northern Iraq, where Iraqis from all over the country could come and talk to them—and read their newspapers and listen to their radio stations. But in 1996, after INC forces had destroyed several divisions of the Iraqi army, Saddam sent 400 tanks and 40,000 of his best troops to attack INC headquarters forcing the INC into exile, although it continues to have many more agents in Iraq than the CIA does.
They long ago negotiated an agreement among representatives of the minority Kurds and Sunnis and the majority Shia community to overthrow Saddam’s Baath regime and then to preserve Iraq in its current borders as a unified federal state with cultural autonomy for each group. All groups have maintained unity on these principles.
The INC’s transition program shows its deep commitment to establishing the rule of law in Iraq as the central requirement for future government. In addition to considering programs for achieving agreement on a new federal constitution, the transition program addresses reform of the judiciary, of the law enforcement system, and of civil-military relations.
Much of the discussion in Washington about post-Saddam Iraq seems to assume that Iraqis, as typical Arabs, don’t understand the rule of law, or pluralism, or federalism, or freedom of speech, and that the Iraqi people don’t care about freedom. Democracy is assumed to be a “Western” taste—despite recent demonstrations of its appeal to Japanese and Taiwanese and Koreans.
Of course it is true that so far there are no Arab democracies. But the world is changing. A few generations ago there were practically no democracies anywhere. And not all Arabs are the same. Iraqis have traditionally been among the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan Arabs. Furthermore, Saddam’s regime has given them some harsh lessons about the evils of dictatorship, and forced 1.5 million Iraqis into exile where they have had a chance to learn about democracy by living in England, the United States, and other democratic countries. It would not be at all surprising if Iraq became the first Arab democracy.
The possibility of an Iraq moving toward democracy is a great fear of the Saudis and other Arab dictators. They know how much the example of movement toward democracy in Iraq would threaten the stagnant stability of the Middle East. Therefore they have tried to prevent Saddam’s removal, and especially his replacement by a democratic movement like the INC, by insisting that the Palestinian problem be solved before Saddam is removed.
Of course, even though the INC and its supporters intend to establish the rule of law in Iraq, and have an extraordinarily talented and honorable leader in Ahmad Chalabi, there inevitably is a danger that they will fail—a danger that has been increased by the State Department’s years of efforts to undermine Chalabi and the INC. Under the British, Iraq had some experience with parliamentary forms and rule of law, but Iraq has a long history of bloody political violence, and more than twenty years of Saddam’s totalitarianism have severely damaged civil society. And while Iraq’s ethnically and religiously diverse population lived together peacefully for centuries under the Ottoman and British Empires, Arab nationalism has exacerbated the significant ethnic and religious differences among Iraqis. Building a new democracy is always a chancy business.
We might increase the chance of relatively quickly building democracy in Iraq by installing an American occupation like those of Germany and Japan after World War II. But the cost to us of keeping our forces in Iraq for a long occupation is only one of the objections to taking on that responsibility. Since there is a ten-year old pluralistic Iraqi movement that wants to try to install the rule of law itself, we have every incentive to simply remove Saddam, and let the INC create the interim government necessary until the Iraqis can write a constitution and begin to build their new government.
The professionals at the Department of State see their job as maintaining good relations, and negotiating agreements, with existing governments. Trying to move toward democracy in the Middle East would especially conflict with these foreign service goals; so they are very reluctant to recognize any occasion where trying to move toward democracy might be a realistic goal for U.S. policy. But President Bush has a higher vision for U.S. policy. He thinks there needs to be fundamental change in the Middle East if the United States is to be able to protect itself from terrorism. A U.S. policy of starting movement toward democracy in the Middle East may express both our ideals and our security needs.
The fact that democracy may fail on the first attempt doesn’t mean that it is foolish to try. The longer it takes to establish democracy, the more important it is to get started. The Chalabi-led INC is probably the best candidate to build democracy that the United States has ever had in all the occasions we have moved to replace despots.
This article appeared in the Washington Times on August 19, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Max Singer is a Senior Fellow and Trustee Emeritus at Hudson Institute. He founded Hudson with Herman Kahn in 1961.