U.S. No Longer Expects Democracy in Iraq
The Washington Post this morning fronts a long piece by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer with reports from unnamed officials who say the U.S. has lowered its aims in Iraq from a thriving democracy to an Islamist republic that can grow into a democracy one day.
The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad. The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say. “What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground,” said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. “We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we’re in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”
Administration officials still emphasize how much they have achieved despite the chaos that followed the invasion and the escalating insurgency. “Iraqis are taking control of their country, building a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. And we’re helping Iraqis succeed,” President Bush said yesterday in his radio address.
Iraqi officials yesterday struggled to agree on a draft constitution by a deadline of tomorrow so the document can be submitted to a vote in October. The political transition would be completed in December by elections for a permanent government.
U.S. officials say no turning point forced a reassessment. “It happened rather gradually,” said the senior official, triggered by everything from the insurgency to shifting budgets to U.S. personnel changes in Baghdad.
The ferocious debate over a new constitution has particularly driven home the gap between the original U.S. goals and the realities after almost 28 months. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq was justified in part by the goal of establishing a secular and modern Iraq that honors human rights and unites disparate ethnic and religious communities. But whatever the outcome on specific disputes, the document on which Iraq’s future is to be built will require laws to be compliant with Islam. Kurds and Shiites are expecting de facto long-term political privileges. And women’s rights will not be as firmly entrenched as Washington has tried to insist, U.S. officials and Iraq analysts say.
“We set out to establish a democracy, but we’re slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic,” said another U.S. official familiar with policymaking from the beginning, who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. “That process is being repeated all over.”
U.S. officials now acknowledge that they misread the strength of the sentiment among Kurds and Shiites to create a special status. The Shiites’ request this month for autonomy to be guaranteed in the constitution stunned the Bush administration, even after more than two years of intense intervention in Iraq’s political process, they said. “We didn’t calculate the depths of feeling in both the Kurdish and Shiite communities for a winner-take-all attitude,” said Judith S. Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst at the National Defense University.
In the race to meet a sequence of fall deadlines, the process of forging national unity behind the constitution is largely being scrapped, current and former officials involved in the transition said. “We are definitely cutting corners and lowering our ambitions in democracy building,” said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University democracy expert who worked with the U.S. occupation government and wrote the book “Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.” “Under pressure to get a constitution done, they’ve lowered their own ambitions in terms of getting a document that is going to be very far-reaching and democratic. We also don’t have the time to go through the process we envisioned when we wrote the interim constitution — to build a democratic culture and consensus through debate over a permanent constitution,” he said.
The goal now is to ensure a constitution that can be easily amended later so Iraq can grow into a democracy, U.S. officials say.
There’s little question that the administration made some major miscalculations in the planning for the post-Saddam part of this war. The scope and nature of the so-called “insurgency”–mostly, the massive influx of foreign terrorists–was grossly underestimated.
Still, one must not confuse “hopes” with “goals.” A political system with legitimate popular sovereignty emerging in Iraq would by the end of 2005 would have been simply unthinkable when President Bush took office. The number of people, even among the senior levels of the Bush Administration or on the editorial board of The Weekly Standard, who thought Iraq would be Switzerland-on-the-Euphrates by now was miniscule.
The United States, which was founded well over two centuries ago by people raised in the Western tradition and with leaders who were on the cutting edge of Enlightenment thinking, is nonetheless in many ways a Christian republic. Yes, we have a strong tradition of religious tolerance and an ever-growing “wall of separation” thanks to the 1st Amendment and decades of judicial rulings. Nonetheless, it is undeniable–even to non-theists such as myself–that Christianity is a cornerstone of our public policy to this day.
It would be inconceivable, really, that an Iraq where people were free to vote their preferences into law would not emerge with Islam as at least a nominal part of the constitution and as part of the fabric of governance. “Islamic republic” is not synonymous with “theocracy.” There is no indication in this report or any other that I’ve seen that Iraq will be ruled by the mullahs at the end of the day.
Similarly, the United States began as a confederation and moved into a looser federation as the need arose. And, despite having much more in common and much less history of acrimony than the three major Iraqi factions have had, we nonetheless had a bloody civil war four score and seven years into the American Experiment and maintain substantial regional autonomy to this day. That the Kurds and Shiites would want the same was predictable. Beyond that, it is a desirable outcome in that it is likely the only chance for the longer term survival of “Iraq” as an intact entity.
So, I disagree with Jeralyn Merritt that this constitutes “f-a-i-l-u-r-e.” Democratic politics entails compromise. Even in war, absent subjugation following unconditional surrender–something we surely would not have wanted in Iraq given our long term goals–one can not impose one’s preferences entirely.