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Fareed Zakaria Discusses Democracy in Iraq

By Donna Urschel
reprinted from The Gazette, May 16, 2003, Vol. 14, No. 17

The difficult task of bringing democracy to Iraq has a greater chance of success if the United States makes a long-term commitment there and enlists the help of the international community, according to author and journalist Fareed Zakaria.

The editor of Newsweek International and a regular columnist for the magazine's domestic edition, Zakaria appeared at the Library on April 16, under the auspices of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, to discuss his new book, "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad." Zakaria took some themes from his book and applied them to the situation in Iraq.

"The only way you will achieve good government in Iraq is through some kind of lengthy institution-building process," Zakaria said. The Iraqis, however, will perceive a lengthy stay as American imperialism. "This is why it's so important for the U.S. to involve the rest of the world in rebuilding Iraq," he explained.

"It's not something to do as an act of charity to the United Nations. It is something to do for the pragmatic reason that it will make the whole process work," Zakaria said. "That way it's not just the U.S. picking the leaders in Iraq. The point is to multinationalize it, to make it an international rather than an American occupation."

Currently, he said, the United States is doing the political work and the United Nations is taking the humanitarian role. "I'm not so sure, for America, this is such a good deal. Why not flip the bargain, or at least share it?"

Zakaria said he thinks a long stay in Iraq is necessary because of the difficulty in establishing a democratic political system. "If you look at the past four decades, the Third World is littered with examples of democracies that have gone awry."

If the United States creates law and order, gets the basic services up and running, holds elections, and then leaves, there is still no guarantee for a good government. "Elections, of course, do not bring democracies," Zakaria said. He referred to a worldwide dismal pattern of new democracies holding elections and then the elected officials creating dictatorships.

"What we mean in the West by democracy is really a liberal democracy which comprises two traditions: constitutional liberalism and elections," Zakaria explained. Constitutional liberalism includes the rule of law, a separation of powers, the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In Great Britain and the United States, these traditions were acquired long before the democracies were officially established. Today, other parts of the world are forced to create democracies the other way around--hold elections and hope the rule of law will follow.

"With Iraq, how do you avoid this dismal pattern? How do you get not only the outer shell of democracy, but the inner stuffing as well, the institutions that really make democracy work?" Zakaria asked.

Instituting these features of a liberal democracy will be difficult in Iraq because it has two great disadvantages, oil and ethnic diversity. There is only one oil-rich country today that is a functioning democracy--Norway, and Norway acquired its democracy a lot earlier than it found its oil.

"If you have treasure in the ground, you don't need to do the hard work of earning money, creating a modern state with a framework of laws and policies that create the rule of law. You just drill a hole in the ground," Zakaria explained.

When a nation has to tax its people, there is a political effect. The country has to give something back to the people in return for their money. "This historic bargain between taxation and representation is at the heart of Western liberty," he said, "and the lack of taxation is at the heart of political dysfunction in oil-rich states."

An oil-rich state that doesn't have to tax its people doesn't have to give its people anything in return. Zakaria referred to these countries as feudal medieval societies that happen to have a lot of cash.

Iraq's second problem is ethnic diversity. While diversity is a good thing, Zakaria said, it has to be well managed and integrated into the system. He cited Yugoslavia and countries in Africa and Asia, in which ethnic diversity led to ethnic rivalry and subsequent "ethnic cleansing." In a country with a political vacuum and no mature development of political parties, an ambitious politician may try to appeal to voters through raw tribalism and ethnic identity.

In Iraq, the Shiite Muslim group is the majority with 60 percent, Sunni Muslim is a minority with 20 percent, and the rest of the country is Kurd, Christian, Turkoman, and Assyrian. "All elements of rivalry are coming to the fore. How it will work itself out will be one of the great problems of Iraq," Zakaria predicted.

"I don't want to sound entirely gloomy. There are solutions to these problems," he said.

First, the power in Iraq should be shared and decentralized. A constitution should create a federal state, with substantial regional authority, and the regions should not be all ethnically or religiously based. His slogan for Iraq would be "To the loser go the spoils," so those people who win only a small portion of the vote would still get something, some representation.

Second, oil revenues also should be shared. He said some countries handle oil revenues well. For example, in Chad in Africa, oil money is earmarked for education and health care and the rest is used to retire the national debt. In Alaska, the oil money is given back to the people as a dividend. Alaskans, every year, receive a check for about $1,500 each.

Zakaria said the only way to deal with these problems effectively is to have a long transition period. He doubts that an effective system can be established in nine months, the current U.S. goal. It will take longer, and a longer occupation by American will be viewed negatively, making it imperative that the United States bring in the international community to help rebuild Iraq.

"Let's try to make it a genuine, lasting democracy rather than something that is here today and gone tomorrow," he said.

After his talk, Zakaria answered questions from the audience on topics such as the chances for a Palestinian state, the need for Iraqi separation of church and state, and Iraq's effect on other countries in the Arab world.

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