TCS Daily


Border-line Silly

By Carroll Andrew - July 1, 2004 12:00 AM

On June 28, 2004 the American-led coalition transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi people. Sovereignty was not "restored" -- under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors, the Iraqi people had never been sovereign in their own country. The question is now whether the people of Iraq will hold on to their sovereignty or pass it along to a new dictator. There is a fear that the latter outcome is likely -- that democracy will fail. It has become quite trendy to fault the coalition for trying to implement "Jeffersonian democracy" in a society not ready for it.

Though well-suited to sound bites intended to challenge the worldview of the advocates of regime change, talk of Jeffersonian democracy does not contribute to a constructive analysis of the government-building process presently occurring in Iraq. The new Iraqi government is not Jeffersonian. Instead, the Iraqis have been handed a system that is "Eurocratic". In a Jeffersonian system, democratic ties between the government and the surrounding society are established at the very beginning. In a Eurocratic system, the governing bureaucracy is formed first. Then, at some later date, democratic ties to the bureaucracy are created and activated.

Advocates of Eurocratic democracy argue that the bureaucracy-first choice is the best choice for a people inexperienced with democracy and vulnerable to warlord-level violence. If the government is not strong at the moment it is handed to the people, then there is grave danger that the inherent tumultuousness of Jeffersonian democracy will explode into civil war. This argument has prevailed in the minds of those in charge of building the democratic Iraqi state. As a result, all of the evidence relevant to the viability of democracy in the Middle East relates to the Eurocratic form. Questions like "can Eurocratic democracy be established anywhere beyond the unique conditions that make it possible in Europe" are legitimate, but the evidence needed to answer questions about the viability of Jeffersonian democracy in the Middle East does not yet exist.

TCS has presented a fully Jeffersonian plan for establishing democracy in Iraq -- a plan for those who believe that allowing the people of Iraq a fighting chance to make democracy work should take precedence over maintaining the terms of the 1920 San Remo conference which established the borders of modern Iraq in the wake of World War I. Conceptually, the plan is simple. Release the people of Iraq from the constraint of one-Iraq-at-any price and build the new Iraqi state from the bottom-up, not the top-down. Establish local-level democracies first -- the heart of true Jeffersonian democracy. When enough mini-democracies have demonstrated their ability to run their local governments in the best interests of their law-abiding citizens, they can join together into larger administrative units.

The most common objections to this plan come from the realist direction. The objections do not challenge the ideal of building democracy from the bottom-up; they center on anticipated obstacles to implementing bottom-up democracy in a world crowded by nation-states and ethnic strife. The objections fall into three major categories. In the Jeffersonian spirit, they are best addressed by starting locally and working outward....

Objection 1: Even at the most local level, there will still be many areas containing ethnically or religiously mixed populations. The population of Iraq cannot be subdivided in a way that solves all of the problems.

This objection merits the most careful consideration. The country cannot be subdivided forever. For this thing called peaceful civilization to continue to exist, people do have to agree to get along with others who may be a little different from them.

The argument in favor of starting with mini-democracies is rooted in an intuitive understanding of organizational dynamics. It is easier to organize 10 people to work together towards a common goal than it is to organize 100; it is to organize 100 than it is 1,000, etc. An important facet of this is the element of leadership. There are many people capable of managing their own lives, a group of one. Some subset from that group is capable of managing a group of 10. From that subset, a smaller subset is capable of managing a group of 100. There are probably very few people capable of managing a group of 25 million. The best way to find qualified leaders is to pick from people who have had success in managing smaller groups.

If you find the intuitive nature of this argument unconvincing, try this experiment. Go to your local bank. Tell them you want a business loan. Your goal is to start a software company. Your plan is to compete head-to-head with Microsoft, across all markets and products, in the first year. Try the same thing with a charter school. Tell your potential supporters that you plan to create a system that, on the first day of classes, will be the size of New York City's public school system. Is there any doubt that you will be told to start with more modest goals first, and then grow your venture as you acquire experience and demonstrate success?

Yet in the case of nation-states -- the form of social organization with a monopoly on force and the license to kill -- why is it that so many insist that the only way to start is on the largest scale possible?

Objection 2: Even if mini-democracies facilitating local harmony can be created, the result will be inter-state warfare between successor states. Allowing Iraq to break up will just turn Iraq into 1990s Yugoslavia.

Borders do not cause conflicts between neighbors, conflicts cause borders between neighbors. Groups willing to live civilly as neighbors are not likely to turn on one another because of a partition. And if they are not willing to live civilly as interstate neighbors, placing them within a single state will not suddenly make them civil. Remember, what is now grouped together in the public consciousness as "the breakup of Yugoslavia" was two separate conflicts, an interstate war between Serbia and Bosnia, and an intrastate war between northern Serbia and its Kosovo province. Did the interstate versus intrastate nature of the two wars make any difference to the people killed and the lives ruined?

The past 10 years of history -- Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and now the Sudan, to name the most obvious cases -- is full of examples demonstrating that intrastate violence is neither intrinsically better nor worse than its interstate counterpart. Intrastate violence can be sadistically efficient when one side uses its control of the government to gain terrible advantage. This dynamic is a large part of the story of the Rwandan massacre, where the Hutus carefully used state machinery to plan and implement the massacre of 800,000 of their Tutsi countrymen. The Tutsi cry for help was ignored, in large part, because the Tutsis had no government to speak through (while the Hutus held a seat on the United Nations Security Council). Is the world comfortable with placing certain groups in Iraq in the same disadvantaged position as Rwanda's Tutsis?

In a different part of the world, an analog of this objection takes the form that any declaration of independence by western Sudan's Darfur province should not be recognized by the outside world because such a declaration would lead to an interstate war. The objection fails to explain how interstate war would be worse for the civilians of Darfur. At the moment, because of its intrastate nature, the Sudanese government is allowed to use its territorial sovereignty to isolate Darfur from the outside world and starve the people there into submission. In an interstate war, the attempt to seal off Darfur need not be sheepishly obeyed by the nations and relief organizations of the world.

This objection is an example of a peculiar form of asymmetrical conflict between democracies and autocracies. Autocrats use borders -- and other facets of the nation-state system -- as a means of increasing their power. Democracies have fallen into the habit of seeing static borders and the nation-state system as ends to themselves, not as instruments created to facilitate peaceful co-existence. Democracies should not be afraid to declare that borders failing to serve any rational purpose are subject to being redrawn.

Objection 3: Even if the Iraqi successor states could peacefully co-exist with one another, Iraq's neighbors (Syria, Iran, Turkey) will never permit such a plan to be implemented.

Would the neighbors of a set of sovereign mini-democracies really go so far as to invade the newly minted countries if they did not like the way that the mini-democracies chose to organize themselves? In the world-of-static-border outcomes, this fear looms large. Outright military victory for a federation of mini-democracies over an established dictatorship is unlikely. The best the mini-democracies could realistically hope for would be a stalemate, and the occupation of the mini-democracies by a neighboring dictator is certainly possible.

With the possibility of building states via Jeffersonian mini-democracy, however, there is a wider universe of possible outcomes. Somewhere between stalemate and total victory, a mini-democracy -- with the assistance of freely chosen alliance partners -- can win by occupying just part of the territory of a dictatorial aggressor and establishing a buffer zone. The mini-democracy can then give the indigenous population of the buffer zone the same choice given to the original Iraqi mini-democracies; once a local government in the buffer zone demonstrates the ability to maintain a peaceful, civil society, they can form their own state. They can even opt to join a federation of the original Iraqi mini-democracies.

With this possible endgame on the table, does Syria or Iran risk crossing the line? Do governments in Damascus and Tehran feel they are so popular that no region would take the opportunity to leave? Syrian or Iranian aggression against an Iraqi mini-democracy could actually become the neocon dream scenario. Pre-emptive invasions are no longer necessary. Instead, when the Middle Eastern autocracies invade the Middle Eastern democracies, the democracies and their allies roll them back, a piece at a time, seizing the opportunity to free available areas from tyrannical regimes.

Turkey, neither a dictatorship nor a true liberal democracy, does present a challenge to this scenario. Turkey fears that the formation of a Kurd-dominated state from the remains of Iraq might encourage the 12 million Kurds living within Turkish borders to seek their own state. Turkey, according to the armchair realists, can be expected to do whatever is necessary to stop any breakup of Iraq. The armchair realists, however, too quickly ignore realist constraints on Turkish action. The long-standing goal of Turkey's foreign policy is membership in the European Union. Is Turkey prepared to effectively kill that effort by becoming the non-democratic occupier of another democracy? Furthermore, is the Turkish government confident that the 12 million Kurds will sit quietly on the sidelines during an invasion? An invasion is just as likely to exacerbate Kurdish nationalism as it is to quell it.

Jefferson Lives!

It is long past time for a critical examination of the modern world's irrational attachment to its current set of borders. There is evidence that this examination has begun. In Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea went their separate ways in 1993. Sudan has opened itself to the possibility of splitting up in six years, after a 21-year civil war that claimed over 2 million lives. If you could go back in time and save most of those lives by adding Southern Sudan to the world atlas, would the world really be a worse place because it was broken into 193 countries instead of 192? How many Iraqi lives might be pre-emptively saved by allowing the Iraqi people -- not just Iraqi leaders -- to decide whether they want to live together within one country or not?

As sovereignty is transferred to the Iraqis, the coalition should keep truly Jeffersonian ideas about building government on the table. The United States should publicly announce that if Iraq's new government cannot establish peace, security, and democracy throughout the country within a reasonable time frame, then the United States will support the secession of the areas that can. Iraqi democracy does not depend on maintaining the border terms of the San Remo conference. Ending the veneration of static borders above all else might be exactly what Middle Eastern democracy needs in order to thrive.

Carroll Andrew Morse is a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote about What Hugo Chavez Means for Democracy.


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