Iraq is one of the world's least likely sites for a transition to democracy. Virtually all of the classic preconditions for liberal government are lacking. And yet, with its decades-long despotism shattered, Iraq is now better positioned than any of its Arab neighbors to become a democracy in the next few years. That achievement, however tentative and imperfect, would ignite mounting aspirations for democratization from Iran to Morocco.
On the ground in Iraq, the picture is quite different from the news we see at home. Yes, there are bloody acts of terrorism every few days. But it is not Iraqis who are staging the suicide bombings. Increasingly, Iraqis are fed up with this violence and turning in the criminals who are waging it. The dwindling ranks of saboteurs and dead-enders, in cahoots with al Qaeda and other jihadists, can blow up buildings and kill people. But they cannot rally Iraqis to any alternative political vision. They can only win if we walk away and hand them victory. Fortunately (for now), the administration, Congress, the American people, and key elements of the international community are not wavering. They are supporting an ambitious agenda for democratic transformation and reconstruction.
Led by liberal-minded Iraqi drafters designated by the Iraqi Governing Council, work is nearing completion on a Transitional Administrative Law that will structure government and guarantee rights from the transfer of sovereignty on June 30 to the seating of a democratically elected government under a new constitution. With its provisions for civil liberties, due process, separation of powers, devolution of power and other checks and balances, this will be the most liberal basic governance document anywhere in the Arab world.
Civil society is springing up. Associations of women, students, professionals,journalists, human-rights activists and civic educators, along with independent think-tanks, are building organizations, holding conferences and crafting the grant proposals that will enable them to work for democracy on a larger scale. In one university, a team of eight translators is at work full time translating works on democracy into Arabic.
Iraqi women -- organized in part into an Iraqi Higher Women's Council -- have come together rapidly across ethnic, regional and ideological lines to craft an impressive agenda for political inclusion and empowerment of women. Some new civic associations -- including a gifted group of democratically minded young people with skills in the visual arts -- are helping the Coalition Provisional Authority to produce an ambitious civic education campaign. Once each week, for the next several months, this campaign will distribute throughout Iraq a million leaflets, each batch explaining in simple terms a different concept of democracy: human rights, the rule of law, free and fair elections, participation, accountability, transparency, minority rights and so on. These will be reinforced with similar messages on radio and television.
Iraqi democrats of all ages believe passionately in the need to educate for democracy, from both secular and religious perspectives. They stress that democracy cannot be secure until "we get rid of the little Saddam in each of our minds." Hundreds of Iraqis are now being trained to facilitate "democracy dialogues" that will bring Iraqis together to talk about (and practice) these concepts of democracy. During the next year and a half, these town hall meetings will also provide a forum for Iraqis to participate in the drafting of their permanent constitution.
Over the next few months, Iraq will witness the most intensive flow of economic reconstruction and democracy-building assistance of any country since the immediate aftermath of World War II. New construction alone will dramatically reduce unemployment. Before long, a new Iraqi electoral administration will begin preparing the country for its first free and fair elections. And Iraqi political parties will receive training in democratic organization,recruitment, communication and campaigning.
The quest for a decent and democratic political order could founder on the shoals of intolerant, exclusivist identities. But recent developments generate cause for hope. In the negotiations on the transitional law, contending groups are working hard with one another (and with the CPA) to find formulae that will manage their differences and give each section of Iraq a stake in the new system. Public opinion polls show that almost half of Iraq's Muslims identify themselves not as "Sunni" or "Shia" but as "just Muslim." Fewer than one in five favor a party ideology that is "hardline Muslim."
Political leaders are beginning to reach out across traditional divides. A leading moderate Shiite Islamist on the Governing Council, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, recently delivered an eloquent public endorsement of a federal system for Iraq. Denouncing the long history of oppression of the Kurds, as well as other peoples, he declared, "Centralization is the source of our division. Either we engage in a bitter conflict over power or we devolve power to the fringes of society."
One of the most serious problems has been the deadlock over the Nov. 15 plan for indirect elections (caucuses) to choose a Transitional National Assembly(TNA). Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and most of his devoted Shiite followers have instead demanded direct elections before the handover of power on June 30. However, with the recent U.N. fact-finding mission to Iraq, led by Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, a compromise resolution now seems imminent: direct elections for a TNA, but only by a timetable that would enable the country to attain the minimum administrative, security, technical and political conditions necessary for free and fair elections. Most experts think it will take at least nine to 12 months to prepare elections that will not be perfect but at least, in Mr. Brahimi's words, "reasonably credible."
It is going to take a lot longer than a year to build democracy in Iraq. Even after a new government is elected under a permanent constitution, the country will need extensive international assistance for many years to come to strengthen central and local government capacity, support civil society, and help fight crime, corruption, and terrorism.
Americans are not generally a patient people. We stayed the course to victory for four decades during the Cold War, but when it comes to nation-building, our impulse is to get in and get out quickly. That will not work in Iraq.
A democracy can be built in Iraq. No one who engages the new panoply of associations and parties can fail to recognize the democratic pulse and possibilities. But these new institutions and ways of thinking will only take root slowly. In the early years, they will be highly vulnerable to sabotage from within and without. The overriding question confronting the U.S. -- as the inevitable leader of a supporting coalition for democracy -- is whether we have the vision and the backbone to see this through.
A failed transition in Iraq will not see the country slip back into any kind of "ordinary" Arab dictatorship. The power vacuum in the country is too thorough, and the well of accumulated grievances too deep, to allow for that.If we withdraw prematurely and this experiment fails, religious militants, political extremists, external terrorists, party militias, criminal thugs, diehard Baathists and neighboring autocracies will all rush in to fill the void. Iraq could then become a new base for international terrorism -- Afghanistan with oil -- or fall victim to a regionally driven civil war, a hellish combination of Lebanon and the Congo. Any such scenario would suck the hope for democratic progress in the Middle East into its destabilizing vortex.
The thugs and terrorists are betting that if they generate enough terror and kill enough Americans, we will cut and run, as in Lebanon and Somalia. This is the one thing that Iraqi democrats fear more than anything else. I have repeatedly assured them, from my own conviction, that we will not abandon them. I hope I will not be proven wrong. Nothing in this decade will so test ourpurpose and fiber as a nation, and our ability to change the world for the better, as our willingness to stand with the people of Iraq over the long haul as they build a free country.