Liberalism versus democracy, Iraqi-style

Predictably, the US and Great Britain, now formally recognized as the occupying powers in Iraq, are starting to be confronted with a nasty question. We believe in both liberalism (i.e., individual freedoms) and democracy. But it’s not obvious how to reconcile the two in Iraq. At least a substantial minority, and (now that the Baath is history) probably the best-organized part of the population, is profoundly hostile to individual liberty, especially when the individuals involved are women. The reports from the ground, aren’t pretty, if the BBC and Newsday are at all representative: in some areas, it’s becoming unsafe for unveiled women to walk around in public, and institutions that accept security help from the mullahs wind up having to accept their prejudices too.

I know which side I’m on, and I know which side American voters would be on if the question were put squarely, but it’s actually not a simple question either in principle or in the world of practical politics.

If Iraqis, in free elections, vote to subject themselves to Saudi-style or Iranian-style theocracy, should they be allowed to do so? I’m reasonably comfortable with the idea that sovereignty, even democratic sovereignty, shouldn’t be absolute: that international human rights norms ought to be enforceable even against the popular will. As long as sharia includes legal penalties for apostasy, any regime that makes sharia enforceable in the law courts ought to be considered illegitimate on its face. But note what a radical stance that is: surely one the current administration, to say nothing of the UN, would be very reluctant to embrace.

Mostly, the US government can duck that question. But being an occupying power makes ducking hard. Now that we’re both officially and effectively in control, either we have to admit that we’re willing to let the mullahs and their followers force Iraqi women to move back a generation, or we have to do something to stop it. So far, the silence from Washington has been rather deafening. That’s partly, I think, because we hope to get help from the mullahs both in enforcing order on the ground and in suppressing the Baathist remnant.

Tell me: Are we having fun yet?

Update Salam Pax sums it up from the viewpoint of an Iraqi who isn’t pleased about being occupied but prefers being ruled by conquerors to being ruled by his countrymen:

So the “interim Iraqi government” got screwed. Quelle surprise!!

Not too hot about any of them anyway and this way we get to blame the Americans for the screwing up of our future. They have been involved in creating the mess we are in now, they should take responsibility in helping us clear it up. Ummm, let’s put it this way so no one gets pissed off: Pretty please with sugar on top, don’t leave now and let the loony mullahs stick me on a pole and leave me in the sun to think about my “Sins”.

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: