19 November 2006

Why Iraq cannot be democratic

This article does not have an ambition to be a complex analysis of what is happening in Iraq. Neither am I sure that its conclusion is right. Nevertheless, I feel I am offering you a likely explanation of why Iraq cannot become democratic in the near future.

Let us first review the basic facts: Iraq is a middle-sized Muslim state, with no major faction being strong enough to hold power alone. Perhaps the Shias would be capable to rule without anyone else within the current constitutional settlement, but they are just as divided themselves as the whole country.

So why Iraq cannot be democratic? Because there is no Iraq. There are no Iraqis. There are just Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. They share little common identity. There is no feeling of togetherness among "the Iraqis". They only live together because the European colonial powers once drew the boundaries the way they did. The only Muslim Middle Eastern state which is not an authoritarian regime (Saudi Arabia...) or is not in chaos (Iraq, Lebanon) is Turkey. Turkey is able to be democratic and stable in the same time because it has succeeded in building One Nation.

Consequently, there cannot be loyalty to the institutions of the state of Iraq, provided by there is no Iraqi nation. That could only have worked under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, who enforced the authority of the state by terror.

So what should be done to prevent Iraq plunging into civil war? It is clearly impossible to divide Iraq, even though in theory it would be the best solution. People who do not want to live with each other would not have to. However, the Sunnis, the only ones who do not have oil fields in their territory, feel obliged to keep Iraq together; just as they did prior to 2003. Baghdad is inhabited by all 3 groups - just as Brussels is preventing the dissolution of Belgium would Baghdad obstruct the disintegration of Iraq. Moreover, there are Realpolitik reasons why Iraq cannot be divided: nothing would be a clearer admission of the US failure than the territorial split-up. Turkey, with the sixth largest military in the world, is ready to invade should the Kurds in the north proclaim independence. The only player which could benefit from the break-up of Iraq would be Iran; but is not it actually more advantageous for the ajatollahs to torture the West with the Shia insurgency? Somewhat strangely, violence in Basra seems to escalate whenever Iran's nuclear ambitions are mentioned by the Pentagon...

Having established that democratic Iraq with a strong central government is impossible, and the partitition of Iraq is not feasible, what solution is left? The only way to stop the civil war unleash is to destroy the site for it. To destroy Iraq in all but name. In my opinion, Iraq should follow the Bosnian model with weak central government, and powerful autonomous administrations for each constituent group (Sunnis, Shias, Kurds). That seems to be the only way to convey democracy in Iraq.

Of course, this carries the risk that the Kurds or the Shias will attempt to go all the way and demand independence. And yes, you guess right, they would not ask for it twice. But now is the time when President Bush should not be afraid to take bold decisions and take the initiative. The risk could pay off - and after all, he has got hardly any political capital to lose.

UPDATE (26 December 2006): An interesting comment piece advocating the two-state solution for Iraq was published in the Boston Globe today. I definitely think that the proposal deserves more attention.

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