Exporting Democracy to Iraq

March 8, 2003

In September 2002, the President of the United States proclaimed The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. In that document, he foretold that, as if for the first time,

He renewed this plan in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on February 28, and he promised that in the event of war our forces would remain in Iraq no longer than necessary to establish democratic institutions in that country. And not a day longer! He made this pledge yet again on national television on March 6.

Would that it could be so. The President speaks as a person with scant experience with any social order other than the empowered one that has surrounded him all his life. He speaks also as a person with scant knowledge of the history of our nation�s efforts to disseminate democratic ideas and institutions in other lands. Moreover, he speaks as a person with scant sensitivity to the predictable response of many people around the world who do not like bullies and who do not regard it as the business of the United States or its President to tell them, or anyone else, how to organize their social and political institutions. It is precisely for those reasons that many of our allies dismiss him as a reckless Texas Cowboy lacking respect for anyone who cannot share his interests and beliefs.

Like the President, I believe in democracy and the market economy. I am not a pacifist and I believe that the United Nations must prove its integrity by holding Iraq to the promises made over a decade ago, by military means if necessary. But before drawing the saber in anger, statesmen must reckon the risks and the costs, and this has not been done by our leadership. A complete, sudden, and costless victory in Iraq may gratify many of the President�s constituents in our country, but it will have the contrary effect almost everywhere else in the world. It will certainly not improve the chances for democracy in Iraq or any place else, even in America.

That the President made his remarks at the American Enterprise Institute suggests that he has imbibed an outrageously optimistic work published in 1991 by Joshua Muravchik, an AEI scholar. Muravchik�s book, entitled Exporting Democracy, held out the occupations of Germany and Japan as models of what we might expect to do to the whole world, particularly the troublesome Middle East. The author correctly took notice that "When East Germans took to the streets of Leipzig, Czechs to the streets of Prague, or even Romanians to the streets of Bucharest, they were strikingly clear in their demands. They asked not for a true press, but for a free press, not for enlightened rulers but for free elections, not for a reformed party but a multiparty system." He concluded from that observation that if we merely took over badly governed nations for a brief time and perhaps invested a little money in developing their market economies, we could establish free presses and free elections and thus universalize peace and prosperity.

No one would question that the occupations of Germany and Japan were remarkably successful in their political consequences. But the author was simply wrong in asserting that those two countries had no traditions of democracy until we provided them. Both nations had substantial democratic traditions that had been devastated by the villains who led them into World War II. Moreover, those cultures shared other traits that made democratization relatively easy. The most important of these is that their national governments served a homogeneous people not divided by caste, race, religion, or language. The indispensable key to self-government is a measure of mutual trust of the sort that Japanese and Germans each share with one another. Derived from that mutual trust is the possibility of trustworthy integrity in a nation�s legal institutions, which in turn are needed to maintain a healthy market economy. Both Germany and Japan had stable legal professions and legal institutions that survived World War II and performed indispensable roles in their reconstructions.

Because trust is their essential ingredient, democracy and market economics cannot be exported. Ideas and institutions can be borrowed or imported, but they cannot be created by outsiders. It should not be necessary to call attention to the many times in American history when our government has unsuccessfully sought to impose its will on hostile tribes here and in other lands. As Constitutional Law Professor Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1908: "Self-government is not a mere form of institutions. It is a form of character. It is not a thing that can be given to any people. We of all people in the world should know this."

American lawyers have nevertheless been trying for over 200 years to give democracy to foreign lands. While there is much more democracy in the world than there was, this has had very little to do with the deliberate efforts of Americans to make it so. The closest analogy to what the President suggests might be done in Iraq is what we did in the Philippines. Our military forces occupied that archipelago from 1898 to 1941. For six years, they fought a war much like Viet Nam, with many casualties and war crimes by Americans. Thousands of American schoolteachers and lawyers and religious missionaries then spent their lives in service to the people of that nation. Yet only a few years after our forces were withdrawn, there was chaos. It led, as chaos always does, to a dictatorship. And today there is again chaos on the southern island of Mindanao, more than a little of it directed at us. These developments reflect the deep divisions of culture, language, religion and caste within the people of the Philippines, conditions making it unlikely that a trusted democratic government can in the foreseeable future be long maintained there, notwithstanding the enormous commitment of many individuals to that cause.

Our military forces also occupied Cuba for some years, and off and on thereafter. Havana at one time had the cleanest streets in the western hemisphere, thanks to the occupation government of General Leonard Wood. But despite the efforts of many, stable democratic institutions were not established. Indeed, numerous other Latin American and Caribbean nations have experienced the kind of influence from norteamericanos the President wants to exert today, and the results were frequently negative. Corruption remains endemic in most parts of the world, and its acid eats out the core of trust on which democratic law and market economies depend. As William Howard Taft as Commissioner of the Philippines lamented, it is very difficult to persuade those otherwise inclined that their public office is not merely an opportunity for private emolument. And as I was once told by a lawyer in a convalescent democratic nation, "the right my people most value is the right to go next door and beat up their neighbor without him fighting back." Iraq, divided as it is by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds with longstanding hatreds of one another, and with no traditions of shared power, mutual respect, and honest government, will not in the 21st century be a stable democracy.

Meanwhile, simple prudence requires that we reckon on the secondary consequences of any military occupation of Iraq. Probably we can destroy some missiles, bombs, chemicals and germs, but they are not the threat to fear. We will never be able to prevent Iraqis from making anthrax or nerve gas in their bathtubs, which surely many are able to do if they were of such a mind. And we will have given them a powerful incentive to do so. It is that motivation that needs address. And it will not be relaxed by using the proceeds of Iraqi oil more wisely for the benefit of the Iraqi people than has been the practice of the present government.

Indeed, we can be sure that the occupation of Iraq by the United States would greatly ease the job of recruitment officers for Al Queda. That organization is a consequence of American support of a secular Jewish state in the midst of a Muslim universe. Its existence was foretold by some smart lawyers advising our Presidents in earlier times � Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, James Byrnes to name some � who understood the passions aroused when people are pushed out of the way by bullies. They foretold that the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan would identify with the suffering of Palestinians and hold it against the United States.

Those hostile passions will be even more desperate if the Iraqi army is successfully destroyed with the ease with which hostile forces in Serbia and Afghanistan have been dispatched in recent years. I suspect that those events have contributed to the mistrust of the United States by former allies. It is in many minds an admirable thing to put our own lives at risk for a worthy cause. But it is not easy to admire those who execute by remote and risk-free methods people whom they disapprove. The only response left open to persons who cherish the culture the President would try to uproot is to join Al Queda or Hamas and go on suicide missions to Pleasantville USA. And that will of course lead to repressions here of the sort we have only begun to witness. As our own mistrust rises, our own democratic traditions will subside.

If the United Nations could have been induced to deal with Hussein, that would have been an extraordinary achievement for the Bush administration. But a military occupation of Iraq having a distinctly American mark will surely be a disaster for the United States.

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