Graceful Losers

Graceful Losers Will Save the Country

With a hundred days to go before an Iraqi government takes over running the country (apparently with a coalition power veto power), there are several bits of unfinished business. The main problem is getting the Shia to understand that democracy doesn’t mean “winner take all.” Explaining minority rights is being done via a media campaign and a lot of meetings with existing leaders (tribal, religious and ethnic). Changing attitudes is tough, because “winner take all” is an ancient tradition in the region. But it’s what Saddam, and his Sunni Arabs, practiced disastrously for over three decades. And Saddam exploited the willingness of tribes and clans to actively support his dictatorship in return for economic favors.

The concept of democracy, and “the common good” has long been talked about in Iraq. Saddam regularly held elections where he got 99 percent of the votes. But real democracy means give and take, and losing gracefully. Iraqi culture portrays a loser as someone disgraced. For example, many Iraqis, who appreciate the fact that Saddam is gone, resent the fact that coalition troops had to invade Iraq and defeat the Iraqi army to do it. This showed Iraqis as defeated, and thus disgraced. Honor outranks gratitude, and it’s tough to run a democracy without a lot of graceful losers. If an insufficient number of Iraqis cannot be converted to “thinking democratically” in the next year or two, the country will slide back to being a dictatorship, with one tyrant practicing the bloody, but familiar, game of winner take all.

This is indeed the essence of the problem. It’s not an insurmountable one. Certainly, no culture was more win-or-die than that of Imperial Japan. But we were able to create democratic institutions there after years of occupation and an imposed constitution that, ironically, guaranteed rights beyond those that were the norm in the U.S. at the time. I’m not sure that sort of transformation can be affected in the short time that we’ve been there. The nature of the behind-the-scenes Coalition supervision will be critical. And I’ve got no idea what that will be at this point.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.