Democracy in the Middle East?

The Washington Post, in a rather gentle editorial, wonders if George W. Bush will follow through on his new idea about bringing democracy to the Middle East. The Post is too polite to inquire whether Bush had Prince Bandar’s permission make the speech.) The Post also notes, correctly, that Iraq is the most important battleground on which the struggle for democracy in that part of the world is being waged, without ever pausing to inquire whether the idea of “regime change” still looks like a good one insofar as it forced the friends of democracy to fight on such unfavorable ground.

More importantly, the Post never inquires as to whether democracy (as opposed to such less ambitious goals as secularization and the rule of law) is actually a good, or even a feasible, goal in that part of the world.

Note that the current plan of the occupying coalition is to make Iraq democratic by having a provisional puppet regime selected by outsiders and responsible to no one in Iraq appoint another unelected and irresponsible body to draft a constitution that will then be presented to the Iraqi people on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

In using such blunt language rather than the euphemisms currently in vogue, I don’t want to suggest that Mr. Bremer and his superiors are wrong. Evidently they have decided that a truly democratic process — which would start with the formation of elected village, town, and regional councils with authority over local public order, public works, and basic governmental services, and then the election, or designation by the local councils, of delegates to a constitutional convention — is either infeasible or too dangerous. It’s quite possible that they’re right, and that no one in large portions of Iraq would dare serve on such bodies or that a democractically convention would write a constitution that would lead to a single free election followed by either an Iranian-style theocracy or a Ba’athist restoration under some other party name or disintegration into regionalism and warlordism.

But if so, then “democracy” is not, in fact, the name of the form of government we intend to create in Iraq, at least for now. The same is true in Saudi Arabia: I have no reason to doubt Wesley Clark’s assertion that if Saudi Arabia had a democratic election Osama bin Laden might well be elected president.

In the past, I have written in outraged tones about what I have called the unseriousness of much of Bush Administration policy. But in this case, unseriousness may be the best we can hope for. If the Bush Administration seriously expects the Middle East, and in particular Iraq, to become democratic in the medium term, its grip on the difference between reality and fantasy is even weaker than I had feared.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: