Needed in Iraq: Patience

In a petition to the Iraqi electoral commission, an array of Sunni and Kurdish political parties and individuals on November 26 called for a six-month delay in Iraq’s national elections, and for two reasons: “to address the current security situation and to complete the necessary administrative, technical and systematic arrangements.”

The interim Iraqi government, with American support, quickly rejected this appeal and a spokesman for the Shiites insisted that the planned date of January 30, 2005, is “non-negotiable.” But there are good reasons to postpone the vote until Iraq is truly ready for it, even if that is months or years away.

While President George W. Bush’s repeated call for a “free and democratic Iraq” is noble and correct, fixing Iraq’s political system cannot be done by two months from now. Security, as the petitioners indicate, is one main reason. The logic of democratization is another.

Security: The first priority, before elections, is for the central government in Baghdad, on its own and independent of American and other coalition forces, to end the Sunni insurrection in Iraq and control the country’s whole territory. From this point of view, the US government made a good appointment in interim prime minister Iyad Allawi. From the time he took office in late June 2004, he has consistently shown what the Washington Post calls a “single-minded focus on issues of security.”

Polling results find that Allawi’s single-mindedness matches the mood of the Iraqi public. A June survey by Oxford Research International, for example, found that while Iraqis seek democracy in the long term (meaning in about five years), in the short term, they “want a strong man to sort out security, take control of the country and keep the nation together.” The poll has two important implications: that legitimacy derives primarily from control of Iraq and that the body politic realistically understands that democracy will emerge only with time and by replacing a receding autocracy.

Unfortunately, this legitimacy is diminished by the coalition forces who carry the brunt of the fighting in Falluja and elsewhere, sparing the Iraqi authorities from having to repress the mostly-Sunni insurgency. What has become, in effect, a war between the US government and the Sunnis of Iraq has spawned an unhealthy situation. As Charles Krauthammer points out, Americans “must make it clear that we will be there to support that new government. But we also have to make it clear that we are not there to lead the fight indefinitely. It is their civil war.”

The central government is far from achieving control over all of Iraq and doing so could take several years. Baghdad needs to focus on this existential problem, rather than worry too soon about the complex political issues facing a nascent democratic government of Iraq. Stability now, says I, and democracy later.

Democratization: Voting does not start the democratization process but culminates and ends it. Before Iraqis can benefit from meaningful elections, they need to leave behind the bad habits of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule and replace them with the benign ways of civil society. There are many steps ahead, such as creating voluntary institutions (political parties, lobby groups, etc.), entrenching the rule of law, establishing freedom of speech, protecting minority rights, securing property rights and developing the notion of a loyal opposition.

Elections can evolve with these good habits. Voting should start at the municipal level and gradually move up to the national level. Also, they should begin with legislatures and move to the executive branch.

These processes will take time, for it is no simple matter to bring Iraq’s fractious population together or to throw off the totalitarian habits of past decades. The experience of such countries as Mexico, South Africa, Russia, China, and South Korea shows that the road from tyranny to democracy is a long, bumpy one. This difficult undertaking cannot be rushed, much less can it be carried out by foreigners. Iraqis alone can make these advances and they will do so with their own currency through a painful process of trial and error.

Americans need to learn patience. This was the advice, in fact, that, days after 9/11, the University of Chicago’s Jean Bethke Elshtain gave to President Bush, asking him “to teach patience to an impatient people.” In Iraq, American impatience could have mortal consequences.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, most recently Militant Islam Reaches America. You may visit his website by clicking here and purchase his books by clicking here.

(This article courtesy of the Middle East Forum.)

Daniel Pipes


Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage