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Elections Can Wait

By Ebon Y. Lee

If there is one thing hawks and doves agree on, it is that Iraq needs democracy. No one can doubt that democracy in Iraq would be a boon to the country and to the region. It would destroy the theory that the Arab world is incompatible with democracy and would undermine the loathsome Middle Eastern governments that spread the poison of anti-Americanism to cover up their own mismanagement. As with so many attempts to bring idealism into foreign policy, the problem is in the execution.

Critics are right when they warn that Iraq will be a tangled mess at the end of a war. Iraq is even now divided, Sunni against Shiite and everyone against the Kurds. Though a coalition government representing all the major groups sounds attractive on paper, it would only set the stage for anarchy as each region, religion and ethnicity tried to grab as much as it could. The strongest and most brutal faction will prevail absent constant outside intervention. Only the total occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces can wrest democracy from these conditions, an expensive solution that seems guaranteed to breed Iraqi anti-Americanism.

Polls and ballots do not make a liberal democracy. Consequently, it is impossible to distinguish our friends and foes solely by the outward trappings of democracy. Generals Pinochet and Park oversaw the rapid economic development of Chile and South Korea, and Pakistan under the nominally elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif helped North Korea build nuclear weapons. Elections are desirable as long as they lead to good results over the long run. The Iraqi people, having no experience with democracy and accustomed to dictatorship, are in no condition to exercise the responsibility of popular sovereignty. Real democracy is less likely than another dictator who uses democratic ritual to justify his hold on power.

The United States could impose a civilian government, as in Afghanistan, if only we could find anyone capable of leading a representative government. Political dissidents foolhardy enough to remain inside Iraq have a short shelf life. The Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of exiled dissidents, is eager to return to Iraq but lacks any credibility inside the country. The president, Ahmad Chalabi, is widely seen as a corrupt show-off, and the organization’s last attempt to start an uprising against Saddam was an embarrassing failure. We will not find the next leader of Iraq chatting with Western reporters in a London restaurant.

The bunkers of Baghdad might be a more fruitful place to start our search. For all his paranoia, Saddam cannot avoid cultivating military leaders. Furthermore, he can only keep his army in line by resorting to brutal purges. The senior officers now in command experienced the Gulf War and they know they are even weaker now. We can be confident that they are not terribly excited about getting themselves and their men slaughtered. A decade’s worth of testimony from Iraqi military defectors, including the army chief of staff at the time of the invasion of Kuwait, shows that officers more often are motivated by a dislike for intense physical pain than by heartfelt loyalty to their government.

Swift success in Iraq depends on military capitulation. In the worst possible scenario, the Iraqi army makes a desperate stand in Baghdad, forcing a U.S. infantry assault against fortified positions defended with chemical or biological weapons. By co-opting part of the military we can prevent needless casualties among U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. We need to make it very clear to the officers in charge that it will not pay to resist. That is difficult to accomplish when the prize for their cooperation is a trial at The Hague, and relatively easy when they are assured of a place in government.

The United States should not remove Saddam Hussein because his government is undemocratic, but because he is Saddam Hussein. There is, after all, a distinction between a dictator and a murderous tyrant. It is Saddam, not the lack of democracy, that stands in the way of U.S. goals in Iraq. Nothing in the definition of dictatorship rules out cooperation with thorough inspections, opening the country to the international market, maintaining territorial cohesion and improving human rights.

None of the above absolves the United States of responsibility for Iraq after a war. The United States will still need to establish bases in the country to keep the military government in line but will not have to devote the bulk of available forces to a costly and indeterminate occupation. Rather than controlling all of Iraq, we only have to control the power that controls Iraq.

In time, civilian leadership will grow into its proper role. Someday we will hear Iraqis protest for democracy, and someday the military will fade into the political background. But in the short term, Iraq needs a dictator—just not the one it has now.

Ebon Y. Lee ’04 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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