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Benign Autocracy Is Answer for Iraq

September 07, 2003|Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev | Ray Takeyh is a professor and director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center, National Defense University, and Nikolas Gvosdev is a senior fellow at the Nixon Center.

WASHINGTON — Last month, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice declared that it was in America's strategic interests "to work with those in the Middle East who seek progress toward greater democracy, tolerance, prosperity and freedom." A democratic Iraq, she continued, "can become a key element of a very different Middle East." But would the flourishing of democracy in Iraq really serve America's core interests? In a country lacking a strong national identity, a country in which ethnic and regional loyalties are paramount, democracy could well result in another Lebanon -- an unstable patchwork of local ethnic fiefdoms perilously perched at the brink of civil war.

Iraq lacks well-rooted institutions. It lacks the national political parties, civic associations, even business conglomerates that create common interests upon which a stable democracy rests. The looting triggered by the collapse of the old regime clearly demonstrated the lack of a civil society capable of promoting general interests above individual ones.

Moreover, even if a sustainable democracy could be created in Iraq, there is no guarantee it would be amenable to American strategic interests. The ongoing acts of resistance -- as well as the growing frustration with the presence of American and British forces even in Shiite areas of the country -- point to a nationalistic rejection of the occupation.

Iraqis were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein but show little inclination to be directed by the United States in any aspect of domestic or foreign policy. Under such conditions, it's ludicrous to expect an Iraqi leadership to be responsive to American concerns and, at the same time, seek an electoral mandate from a disgruntled populace that does not support U.S. goals for the region.

America's democratic impulse is similarly self-defeating in the rest of the Middle East. Despite the claims of the Bush team, our essential interests are unlikely to be realized in a more democratic Middle East. To maintain stability, contain its rivals and displace its nemeses, the U.S. needs garrisons, naval installations and the cooperation of local intelligence services. It needs to ensure that the price of oil remains stable. And it needs to continue its commitment to Israel.

It is hard to see how any of these responsibilities can be easily discharged in a democratic Middle East.

Throughout the region, opposition to the United States cuts across ideological and cultural boundaries and unites seemingly disparate groups. Take the case of the peace process. In the two states that have enacted formal peace treaties with Israel -- Egypt and Jordan -- much popular opinion is strongly hostile to such obligations. It is autocrats, not popular assemblies, who keep the peace process alive.

Given such views, American policy objectives are unlikely to fare well in a pluralistic Middle East.

Nor would the United States find a democratic Middle East a more hospitable terrain for its antiproliferation priorities. Prospective democracies in the Middle East, including Iraq, would face strong nationalistic pressure to modernize their armed forces and develop weapons to compete with a nuclear-armed Israel. Washington has had some success in coaxing, bribing and pressuring Arab despots to comply with nonproliferation treaties, but it would have little leverage with democratic regimes. It is significant that none of the opposition parties in either Pakistan or Iran supports any move toward a nuclear freeze.

The best that the United States can hope for is to encourage the rise of liberal autocracies that will accommodate popular demands for accountability and participation while still maintaining close ties with the United States. The model of liberal autocracy is not without precedent in the Arab-Muslim world. Several of the region's most stable and pro-American regimes are already moving toward this type of governance. The modernizing monarchies of Morocco, Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait and the liberalizing one-party state of Tunisia all serve to illustrate this indigenous trend.

This sort of liberal autocracy should be America's model for political reconstruction in Iraq. Instead of quixotic democratic schemes, Washington should create a strong central government in Baghdad, one that is responsive to its citizens but also capable of regulating local rivalries and is insulated from popular pressure.

America's goal should be to transfer power to an indigenous regime as soon as possible, not to use Iraq as some sort of social-science laboratory for nation-building. The United States should select an efficient new leadership capable of initiating market and other reforms while also managing popular discontent with American policies. There is a great deal of talent in the midlevel ranks of the military and civil service that can be tapped for such a purpose.

Empowering pragmatic local administrators (as opposed to exiled politicians) would ensure that the leadership is in touch with the needs of the Iraqi people, and that it would have a good chance of surviving even after the U.S. withdraws.

The continuing unrest in Iraq today demonstrates that its citizens crave services, not abstract notions of pluralism. If a new regime improves the quality of life for Iraqi citizens, it will gain popular support -- even if it was backed initially by the U.S.

The United States is at a crossroads. It can either face the very real risks of democratization or dispense with its Wilsonian pieties and craft a durable new order for the Middle East. It cannot do both.

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