TCS Daily

Power to the People?

By James D. Miller - December 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Decolonization doesn't usually deliver democracy. To preserve Iraqi freedom, America must maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq.

Without the U.S. military, Iraqi politics will quickly degenerate into blood sport. The U.S. will undoubtedly insure the fairness of the first post-Saddam Iraqi election, but this election will be the last if its winners use the Iraqi military to leverage their democratic victory into permanent power.


The first democratically elected Iraqi leaders wouldn't even have to be power hungry thugs to desire to end Iraqi democracy. Imagine that you have been elected to the new Iraqi ruling body and are considering whether to hold an honest election. You know that in the past Iraqi leaders assassinated political rivals and even attacked their rival's families. Would it be moral for you to hold a fair election if defeat might bring death to your kin?


If the U.S. maintains a permanent military presence in Iraq, we could insure that the government of the day doesn't use the Iraqi military to kill the loyal opposition. By helping to insure the survival of defeated politicians, we would greatly decrease the cost of losing elections and thus make it far more likely that politicians will allow democracy to flourish. Furthermore, a permanent U.S. military presence would facilitate cooperation among Iraqi ethnic groups.


Iraq has three main ethnic groups: the majority Shi'a Arabs; the long-persecuted Kurds; and the masters of the old regime, the Sunni Arabs. For Iraqi democracy to prosper, voters and politicians must at least occasionally submerge tribal loyalties to form cross-ethnic alliances, but this will never happen if each group has even a small fear that others will gain control of the Iraqi military and ethnically cleanse them from the political arena.


Without U.S. military presence, each ethnic group will feel compelled to seize military power if for no other reason than to prevent other groups from taking control. Consider that Saddam's army inflicted great horrors on the Kurdish people. If the U.S. military leaves Iraq, Kurdish political leaders would be morally obligated to gain as much influence over the Iraqi military as possible to save their people from future suffering. Of course, if the Kurds go all out seeking to dominate the Iraqi military, then so too will the Shi'a and Sunni Arabs. Such a contest for military supremacy could only end in civil war or in one group gaining total power.


The Iraqi military will have to be strong enough to deter external aggressors, meaning that it will necessarily be powerful enough to seize domestic power. Normally, secret police and strict political controls prevent Arab armies from gaining political power. Such political dominance of the military, however, inevitably means that the government uses the military to achieve political ends inconsistent with democracy. Consequently, a truly democratic Iraq would not have the same tools to control its military as does Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Iran. U.S. troops stationed in Iraq would therefore represent the best means of checking any Iraqi military political ambitions.


The U.S. is trying to make Iraq a democracy, but history teaches that democracy can't quickly be imposed from abroad. Twentieth century European decolonization in Africa and Asia usually resulted in dictatorship. In contrast, the U.S. maintained long-term democracies in many of the countries we defeated in WWII, such as West Germany, Japan, Italy, and France, because U.S. military presence ensured that these countries' domestic politicians couldn't usurp permanent power.


Of course, the American military should stay in Iraq only with the consent of the Iraqi people. Before Iraq holds national leadership elections we should therefore let the Iraqi people vote on whether they want the U.S. military to maintain a permanent presence in Iraq. It would truly show that the Iraqi war was just if the people we defeated voted to keep our military around.


James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.


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