Ambrose Bierce, in his wonderful book, The Devil's Dictionary, defines war as God's way of teaching Americans geography. We have taken on a very ambitious agenda for Iraq. Bringing constitutional democracy to Iraq will be difficult. And I think it will be dif- ficult because of something that is really the central theme of my book--we want to bring to Iraq not just democracy, but constitutional democracy. In the past three or four dec- ades, there has been a great movement toward democracy in much of the world, but many of the governments formed in that process don't look, feel, or smell like democracies.
You have a government like Hugo Chavez's in Venezuela that is essentially an elected dictatorship. It is a government that is democratic, but but no means constitutional.
You have a government in Russia run by Vladimir Putin. Putin, who was elected freely and fairly, has fired half the regional governors and appointed super governors in their stead; ousted a third of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament; intimi- dated the Russian media, which was once free and vibrant, into nearly total silence; and is prosecuting a war in Chechnya in which the Russian Army has killed about 100,000 Chechens. Is that really a democracy? It is certainly not a constitutional democracy.
Constitutionalism Versus Democracy:
The Western model of government that we cherish comprises two somewhat different traditions that I describe in my book--the constitutional tradition and the democratic tra- dition. The democratic tradition is about public participation in government--essentially about elections. Democracy is best defined as a form of government in which the regime is chosen by free and fair elections.
Constitutionalism, on the other hand, is really not about the process for selecting govern- ments [administrations, or governing elites, in American terminology], but about govern- ment's goals [that is, the basic functions of government]. In the constitutional tradition, the goal [function] of government is preservation of individual liberty. That tradition, which began with Magna Carta or even earlier, is about restraints on governmental au- thority. Historically, it has required the development of bulwarks that protect individual rights and liberties from arbitrary and unrestrained power--from state, church, or society wielding arbitrary and unlimited power.
We tend to think of those two traditions as somewhat one and the same because, in the Western world, they have merged together. But they're quite different and have di- verged at various points in history.
The Rise of Western Liberty:
I begin the book in 324 A.D., because that's when, in my opinion, there were the begin- nings of Western liberty. That is when Roman Emperor Constantine decided to move his capital from Rome to Byzantium. It was a very important decision because he took with him his entire court, but left behind one person--the Bishop of Rome. In doing so, he began the process of separation of church and state. And the church, ironically, turned out to be the first great check on state aurhority in the Western world. It was really the first time in human history that an institution independent of governmental authority was able to check the power of the government.
Then there was a whole succession of such institutions and traditions in the Western world and the rise of feudal aristocracies that that checked the power of government. Often these checks were not intended to protect individual liberty. Magna Carta was intended to be a charter of baronical privilege. It was a document that said to the King of England, "You cannot trespass on the rights of these barons." But, in doing so, it checked royal absolutism.
There was also the rise of capitalism, which was probably the single most profound check on state authority, since it produced an entire class of people, the bourgeoisie, who derived their strength from society, not the state. This produced an independent civil soci- ety, a term which, in its origins, referred to private businessmen--not the masses, not to the entire adult population as a whole, but the business class of property-owners politi- cally organized under a system of laws and some form of constitutional and partially rep- resentative government. In reality, the symbol of Western government has always been, not the mass plebiscite, but the impartial judge and the legislative assembly chosen by some mode of election, direct or indirect..
All of that took hundreds of years to develop, and then we got democracy. It is very im- portant to remember that, when Britain was considered the most liberal, or constitutional, free society in the world, in 1800, after Montesquieu had sung the praises of the British constitutional system, only two percent of Britons voted. Lest we think we are that different, only five percent of Americans voted in the election of 1824. But America had the rule of law, property rights, and other rights firmly enumerated and protected. That tradition of law led to democracy and then fused with democracy to produce constitutional democracy.
Elected Despotism in Europe:
Those two traditions, constitutionalism and democracy, have diverged even in Western history. People sometimes think that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party came to power in Germany in a kind of covert coup, but that is not entirely true. Hitler came to power on the heels of the famous and flawed election in November, 1933, but there were three elections before that in which the Nazi Party won a plurality of the vote. Nazism, Fas- cism, and populistic authoritarianism rose throughout Europe on the back of fairly pop- ular movements--movements that appealed to the masses, and not so much to the tradi- tional upper-class elites. These movements often gained power through elections, rather than by way of revolution and coup d'etat.
We are not just trying to bring to Iraq popular participation--the process of democratical- ly selecting those who are to govern Iraqi society. Rather, we are trying to bring to the Iraqi people the whole long tradition of law, constitutionalism, constitutional rights of the individual, and stable representative democracy. Anyone can hold an election, but it will be far more difficult to create the rule of law, the institution of property rights, and re- sponsive, transparent, and clean governmental authority. It will be difficult because Iraq faces two or three obstacles along the way.
The Curse of Oil--Oil as an Economic Problem:
The first of these obstacles is the problem of oil. I call it a problem, yet many in the United States government seem to see it as a solution. Before the war, one would read statement after statement of U.S. government officials extolling the virtues of oil--ex- plaining how oil is going to mean the development of the Iraqi economy, the payback of reconstruction efforts, and how it will put the country on a glide path to modernity.
There is only one problem with this theory. Of all the oil-rich countries in the world, only Norway has both a functioning capitalist economy and a constitutional democratic polity. And Norway got its constitutional democracy long before it discovered its oil. In my book, I call states with easy access to oil revenue "trust fund states." Such states never go through the hard work of modernixing their societies, modernizing their laws, and building a market economy. Minus oil, the merchandise exports of the entire Arab world --290 million people--equal those of Finland, with 11 million people. The reason for this is that the Middle Eastern region has too easy access to unearned income.
The Curse of Oil--Oil as a Political Problem:
The problem of oil is not just an economic problem; it's also a political problem. It is a political problem because, when a government doesn't need to tax its people, it doesn't need to give them back anything in return. We've learned that the hard way. The Ameri- can Revolution occurred because Americans felt they were being taxed by the British government, but not represented in the British Parliament. The Saudi royal family makes a different bargain with its people. It says, "we won't tax you and we won't represent you." It is, in a sense, the inverse of the slogan of the American Revolution: "No taxa- tion, no representation." And that political dysfunction affects every oil rich society.
Iraq--A Nation or Group of Nations Divided:
Another important obstacle in the path of bringing constitutional democracy to Iraq arises from the fact that Iraq is riven with differences--differences among ethnic nation- alities and among religious sects. The people or peoples of Iraq are Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Turkmen, among others. To see what this can produce, go back in Europe's history and look at how easy it was for dema- gogues to rally people on the basis of very raw appeals to ethnic nationalism, tribalism, racism, and religious bigotry. Just 10 years ago, we had a similar situation in the former Yugoslavia, a country also governed for decades by totalitarian or highly authoritarian rulers. The old despotic order crumbled, and, in the void, everyone pushed for a quick transition to democracy. But Serb and Croatian politicians had to campaign to get votes, and the most popular and effective appeals were not education reform or tax policy, but raw appeals to race, religion, and ethnicity. The cycle of Serb nationalism and Croatian nationalism got out of control. The result was tribal warfare, ethnic cleansing, and, even- tually, attempted genocide.
It doesn't have to happen exactly that way in Iraq, but Iraq does have a raw, young po- litical culture in which no politics or political parties have been allowed. And people are mobilizing on the basis of Shia radicalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Iraqi Arab ethnic na- tionalism, and Kurdish ethnic nationalism. Secular constitutionalists might find it more difficult to rally crowds and appeal to voters.
Iraqi History--A History of Oppression:
The final obstacle in the path of constitutional democracy arises from the fact that Iraq is a Middle Eastern country. By this. I mean, Iraq, like every Middle Eastern country, has followed a particular pattern over the past three or four decades. It was a secular, West- ernizing regime that morphed into a tyranny. The Saddam Husseins, Nassers, and As- sads of the Middle East are all suit-wearing, Western-style modernizers. And when their people look at them, they see tyranny and repression.
Those rulers put into jail anyone who hinted at political opposition or tried to found a po- litical party--or even a Rotary Club. An Egyptian friend of mine recently said to me, "If four people are sitting down in a coffeehouse in Egypt talking about politics, they will be put in jail." The one place in the Middle East which you cannot ban is the mosque. So all the discontent and extremism got channeled into the mosque, and religion became the language of political opposition in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein did not allow Lib- eral or Conservative parties or Democratic or Republican parties. But, like every other Middle Eastern leader, he didn't dare shut down the mosques, nor did he take on tribal chieftans. So, when the regime crumbled, only the mosques and tribes were left standing.
Liberty Before Democracy:
If you look at the successful cases of non-Western countries that have made transitions to genuine constitutional democracy, they are almost all clustered in East Asia or former colonies of the British Empire. They all followed a pattern, which was a variation of the Western pattern--the rule of law and capitalism first, and elections and democracy after- wards. Sequencing matters; ideally, you get the institutions of liberty in place before you create democracy. If you hold elections and cross your fingers that constitutionalism will emerge, it often doesn't turn out right.
In Africa, 42 of the 49 countries have held elections, producing governments that are often thoroughly illiberal, that is, non-constitutional and dictatorial. But in countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand, where they have built the rule of law, a commercial class, an independent middle class and then democracy, you have achieved something quite significant. Democracy is hard work. It is very much worth trying to spread, but it takes a much broader process of modernization and liberatization than people realize.
More on Constitutional Democracy & Other Political Regimes
More on Government, Politics, & Political Culture
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
Fareed Zakaria is the Editor of Newsweek International, a columnist for the domestic edition of that periodical, and the author
of the book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. The foregoing analysis was excerted from a
lecture presented by Zakaria in New York, N.Y., on June5, 2003, at a Cato City Seminar, held under the auspices of the Cato Institute.
The excerpt was originally published in the Fall, 2003, issue of Cato's Letter.
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