August 29, 2005

But We Were So Close!

In the Lebanon Daily Star, Joseph Nye compares 'democratization' in Iraq with that in Japan and Germany fifty years ago:
Nevertheless, we can still conclude from the Iraqi experience that while the development of democracy can be aided from outside, it cannot easily be imposed by force. While it is true that Germany and Japan became democratic after American occupation, it required their total defeat in a devastating war, and a seven-year occupation. Moreover, Germany and Japan were relatively homogeneous societies with some prior experience of democracy. It is hard to see such conditions repeated in today's world.
Hard to argue with that, although I would point out that some of the mistakes in Iraq were expressly avoided in the post-WWII occupations. In Japan, the old state structure largely remained untouched—the parallel, I guess, would be keeping most of the Baathists in place in Iraq—and the new Imperial Diet formed under the auspices of the old Meiji Constitution. That Diet approved the new constitution, and while the Americans lurked behind the scenes manipulating the whole thing, they managed to keep that fact concealed. Perhaps that sort of concealment would be impossible to do in today's world, I don't know, but it makes a difference—very few Iraqis were fooled by the fact that Paul Bremer and the CPA were calling the shots while the TAL got cobbled together, and it pissed a lot of people off.

In Germany, meanwhile, local elections were organized very quickly, and the occupation powers built the new government from the ground up, and that new government created its own constitution, rather than having one imposed. Again, something that might have worked in Iraq, but was rejected. On the other hand, there are some pretty fundamental differences between now and post-WWII: it was clear, for instance, that pro-American governments would come to power in Japan and Germany when we held free and open elections; that was obviously less clear in Iraq. Plus the Kurds—not to mention oil wealth—were always bound to muck up this democratization process. (And fair enough.) Plus everything else Nye mentions.

So I'm pretty skeptical of these "If only we had done it like this" arguments about Iraq, and much more sympathetic to Nye's argument that this stuff is just plain difficult, and Japan and Germany are exceptions rather than universal precedents. No one knows whether Iraq would be better off if only the CPA had avoided some of its big mistakes. Perhaps keeping the Baathist Army intact would have sparked a Shiite or Kurdish insurgency. Perhaps some nasty characters would have come to power if the CPA had held local elections quickly. Perhaps handing the whole thing over to Ahmed Chalabi, as the Pentagon originally wanted to do, would have led to any number of problems down the road—his capacity for mischief looks pretty unlimited. It would be pretty tragic to come away from this whole thing thinking that democratization at the barrel of a gun can just work with a bit more competence involved, only to watch the next starry-eyed administration go off, try it a different way, and fail yet again.
-- Brad Plumer 2:55 PM || ||