Exporting Democracy: What Have We Learned from Iraq?

Iraqis show ink-stained fingers after voting in the January 2005 elections. Photo: Jim Goodwin (US Army)

The editors of Dissent posed the following question to several respondents:
Iraq has provoked the bitterest debate about American foreign policy since Vietnam. One rationale for the war proposed by George W. Bush’s administration was that it would lead to democracy—first in Iraq and then elsewhere in the Middle East. Many people thought that this was never a serious intention, but it is probably true that some members of the administration believed that the war would make democratization possible in Iraq. Four years later, most observers would agree that this effort has failed, despite the holding of several elections. Whatever you think of the Bush administration’s motives, what is to be learned from the Iraq experience about the export—and import—of democracy?

Read the Responses: Daniele Archibugi, Ofra Bengio, Seyla Benhabib, Paul Berman, Mitchell Cohen, Thomas Cushman, John Lister, Shibley Telhami.


The democratic ideal can be presented to peoples and countries that have not yet embraced it in two entirely opposite ways: through persuasion or through coercion and force.

The European Union is a champion in persuasion, often combined with powerful economic incentives. The prospect of joining the largest market of the world has played a crucial role in stabilizing new democratic regimes in Southern European countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal. In more recent years, it is playing the same role in Eastern Europe. It can be hoped that the EU will achieve the same result in Turkey and—why not?—further enlargement can also be envisaged with regard to countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

So far, the EU has included countries relatively likely to embrace democratic faith and institutions. European countries in the South and in the East already had a high level of social capital and good political infrastructures. But there is also something specific to the EU: it is a civilian and not a military power. People would laugh if anybody in Brussels threatened to “shock and awe.” The fact that the EU has so many different voices also implies that no single nation can fully dominate the others.

>>Read Full Response


Four years after the war for democracy in Iraq began, it is evident that the project has failed dismally. Many analysts attribute this to flawed implementation. Although there is no denying that there were gross mistakes, the failure had much more to do with conceptual flaws and total lack of comprehe...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.