TCS Daily

Marching Towards a Democratic Iraq

By Michael Totten - December 22, 2004 12:00 AM

"Please, sir, can you help me? I must work with Americans, because my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein. Not just me. All Iraqis. Psychological demolition."

-- An Iraqi teacher to reporter George Packer for the New Yorker.

Few Americans lose sleep when their party doesn't control the White House or Congress. Democrats aren't happy with the re-election of George W. Bush, and who could blame them? But no one with any sense in their head worries about Republican death squads kicking down doors in the night. Liberals won't be frog-marched out of their homes, won't be interned in camps, and certainly won't be machine-gunned into a ditch. It's so easy for us to forget. There are few things less dangerous in the world than losing an election in the United States.

Democracy doesn't entitle 51 percent of the country to lace up their jackboots and stomp on the faces of the 49 who were vanquished. But a deformed illiberal "democracy" could, in theory, mean that. Americans did once worry about the tyranny of majorities. The separation of powers and the establishment of individual rights were put into place as pre-emptive correctives.

We'd be fools, though, if we thought people with no experience with consensual government aren't haunted by fears of elected mobs -- especially in a place like Iraq.

Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was nothing if not a vehicle for fascistic gangsters from his Tikriti clan and the Sunni ethnic minority to lord it over the majority. Only Allah and Western fighter jets could protect the Shi'ite Arabs in the south and the Sunni Kurds in the north from the tank shells, helicopter gunships, and chemical weapons unleashed against them during the Baath regime's chronic rampages and crackdowns.

Saddam's Republic of Fear was a masterpiece of the genre that terrified even its architects. High-ranking officials lived in constant fear of denunciations, executions, purges, and show trials. Saddam himself famously scrambled from palace to palace on a daily and sometimes even hourly basis.

The long-brutalized Shi'ites make up more than 60 percent of Iraqis, Saddam's Sunni Arabs less than 20 percent. Shi'ites will surely dominate government in a democratic Iraq. Many Sunni Arabs, especially those who collaborated with the ancien régime, understandably fear retribution.

The only experience Iraqis have had with elections were Saddam's sham referendum's where he "won" 100 percent of the vote. They don't know what it's like to lose actual elections where there are peaceful transfers of power. They have never had a chance to learn firsthand that a mandate to govern is not a warrant for vengeance. Politics as they've known it has always been thoroughly Stalinist. Law was enforced by the bulldozer, the dungeon, and the rack.

Iraq's first real election is scheduled to take place in January. A poll published in the Arabic paper Alsabah shows that 80 percent of Iraqis don't want the election postponed. It's probably safe to say those same 80 percent support the election in principle. But some number smaller than 20 percent don't want an election at all.

Some rejectionists and insurgents are Baathist dead-enders. Others are Koran-thumping rightists who would impose Islamic Law on the hapless majority. Many are freelance jihadists from neighboring states who came to Iraq to cut off infidel heads and blow themselves up at checkpoints.

Some are just plain scared to death of democracy. It makes perfect sense if some think it's a zero-sum sucker's game, that what empowers the Shi'ite majority threatens the Sunni Arab minority. (And it had better not come to that, not on our watch.) They figure it's safer to stand against Americans than face a sovereign Iraqi Shi'ite-majority government with a memory of history and a chip on its shoulder.

They're the biggest potential obstacle to the election's legitimacy. If enough people in the Sunni Triangle boycott the vote as a bloc (it is there that opposition to the coalition's military presence and the interim Iraqi government is fiercest), whatever government does come to power will be limping right from the start. Iraqis don't need a high voter turnout; many of our own elections had turnouts of less than 50 percent. What they need it a broad turnout so the elected government is seen as legitimate everywhere.

We have two seemingly-contradictory tasks on our plate: fight the guerillas and terrorists while at the same time convincing the majority that if the system breaks down, if their constitution doesn't protect them, we will. We're not in Iraq to oppress any minorities. We're their protector of last resort.

Those who wish to martyr themselves should step right on up because we're there to help. But we'd rather help them be free. They must understand: it is so much safer to lose an election that to meet the Marines on the battlefield.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at



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