November 30, 2003 | National Review Online

Democratizing Iraq

By Eleana Gordon,

President George W. Bush has staked the credibility of the United States, and his own legacy, on the success of the democratic experiment of Iraq. Yet many Americans will be surprised to learn how little we have done so far to actually teach Iraqis about the democratic institutions we are promising to help them build.

In his recent speeches at Whitehall Palace in London, and the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. – not to mention his surprise Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad – the president left no room for doubt over his commitment to democracy in the Middle East. He made it clear that America's days of tolerating Arab dictators for the sake of an illusory stability are over. From now on, “we're pursuing a different course, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” he said. Democracy is not a luxury – it is a U.S. national-security imperative: “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.” Iraq, the heart of the Middle East, is to be our first success.

Skeptics argue that the notion of exporting democracy to Iraq is Wilsonian utopianism. Iraqis, they argue, are too fractured and divided for democracy, and what they really need is a “strong hand” (read: another dictator or at least a strongman) to hold them together.

A recent three-week visit to Iraq and months of working with Iraqi democracy activists, have convinced me that the naysayers are too quick to dismiss the potential for democracy in Iraq. But on one point their arguments have force: We should not take it for granted that democracy will come easily to Iraqis. Thus far, the administration has done way too little to advance the process of creating democratic values and institutions.

Iraqis are engaged in an intense debate over their future government. Talk of democracy has at least tweaked their interest and they are eager to learn more.

My own visit to Iraq gave me a unique view of this debate. I did not travel to Iraq courtesy of the military, nor was I there as a journalist or with an international nongovernmental organization. I was there with a group of Iraqi women to interview democracy activists countrywide, and organize a four-day women's conference on democracy at the University of Babylon in Hilla. The 150 participants were Shia Arabs (including delegations from the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala), who account for roughly 55 percent of Iraq's 26-million-strong population. There was also a visiting delegation from Kurdistan, and speakers from the newly elected Baghdad City Advisory Council.

The very contrasting, and potentially clashing, traditions of Iraq were on display at our conference. Not one Kurdish woman covered her hair, while many of the Shia Arab women wore head-to-toe black cloaks and veils. But despite their many differences, the women shared one overriding goal: never to be oppressed again.

The women managed to disagree with each other on issues ranging from the role of religion in the future Iraq to the use of quotas to empower women. Yet they reached a consensus that each was free to voice her own opinion. They were also in complete accord that in the new Iraq, citizens should be equal before the law, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnic group, or political beliefs.

Iraqis are looking for a system in which their differences can coexist rather than be repressed. The current political buzzword in Iraq is “federalism.” The Iraqi motivation for creating a federal state is obvious: “unity” was one of Saddam's favorite slogans, used to crush all dissent. In an ethnically and religiously diverse country like Iraq, federalism means “live and let live.”

Iraqis know that this is a historic time for their country, an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take control of their national destiny. At our conference, the women peppered us with questions about how other countries are governed, how they could influence the political process, and how to build organizations to empower women. Since April there has been a remarkable explosion of civil society for a people coming out of three decades of totalitarian rule. Over 70 new political parties have been formed and human-rights and women's groups are popping up all over – “like popcorn” said one Iraqi activist.

This suggests that there is fertile ground in which to sow the ideas of democracy. But unless the U.S. engages in a concerted, nationwide democracy-education campaign in Iraq, we risk losing that ground to democracy's opponents.

Right now, Iranians and Saudis are aggressively using the media, Islamic associations, and mosques to teach that Islamic rule – not democracy – is the true path to the freedom and dignity. They argue that unless religion becomes the base of Iraqi society, it will be amoral and rudderless. They claim that democracy means chaos and that in a democracy women will be forced to remove their headscarves and will become promiscuous.

The dozens of human-rights activists I interviewed were enthusiastic about democracy, but they lack the knowledge to effectively counter the myths put about by democracy's enemies. They are unaware of why, or how, democracy works to protect human rights and hold governments accountable. They lack critical concepts such as “checks and balances,” “separation of powers,” and protection from the “tyranny of the majority.” A member of the constitutional committee admitted to me that for all the Iraqi excitement about federalism, few of his fellow members understand how it works in practice.

A lawyer from Najaf spoke for many at the conference when she told me: “You need to teach us more about the details of democracy, so that we know how to build it.” The participants asked for media campaigns to “teach people about the role of a constitution, the process for writing it and the most important principles that are needed for a good constitution.” They asked that the Coalition establish democracy education in high schools and universities, factories and cultural institutions, government centers and mosques.

Even at our conference, the enemies of freedom were not idle. One evening, the officials of Hilla University brought in a speaker who was supposedly an Islamic scholar. He told the women to reject the sinister foreign ideas that we were spreading.

The women answered back that the Koran encouraged Muslims to learn from non-Muslims – and besides, the conference was chaired by Iraqis. Some women left the room in protest at the scholar's comments, unheard of in a country where women traditionally wait for men to rise and leave first.

The women had scored a small victory against those who wish to rob them of their freedom. But to keep winning these battles they will need to be better armed. During the Second World War, the U.S. was known as the “arsenal of democracy” because we built the weapons to defeat tyranny. Today, we must become a “library of democracy,” making up for the paucity of democracy literature in Arabic and providing Iraqis with the basic texts and ideas that we take for granted.

Sharing our ideas with Iraqis is not the same as imposing them. Iraqis will decide for themselves if the arguments for democracy are convincing. But in the meantime, we should at least make the case. They are willing to listen and are reaching out for American support and education. President Bush understands that we will have few opportunities like this to disseminate new ideas in the heart of the Middle East. Our ability to respond to this historic opportunity is a critical test.

— Eleana Gordon is policy director for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where she oversees democracy promotion activities. She helped organize the “Heartland of Iraq Women's Conference” in Hilla, Iraq in early October that was hosted by the Women for a Free Iraq and sponsored by the Coalition Provisional Authority.