Ofra Bengio Response

Ofra Bengio 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 comprehension of, or worse still, disregard for Iraq’s history and its problems. Had the project’s architects taken these into account, they would not have opted to make Iraq the model democracy for the Arab world, even if only for lip service.

The most severe conceptual flaw was the belief that democracy can be imposed by force by an outside power. The successful German and Japanese cases after the Second World War were completely irrelevant models for Iraq, where a combination of historical, political, social, and cultural factors doomed the American project from the start. It was Great Britain that attempted first to establish Western-style democracy in Iraq, beginning in the 1920s. This experiment, which was identified with Christian imperialism, failed and left severe scars in the Iraqi collective memory. Iraqis remained suspicious of any similar projects emanating from the West. Even with all the best intentions, the new American project could only have aroused, at least among some significant parts of the population, deep-seated fears of a new imperialism disguised by slogans of democracy.

Another conceptual flaw was the idea that one of the worst totalitarian regimes in the world could be transformed overnight into a democracy. This vision of radical change did not take into account the fact that in Iraq civil society was nonexistent. There were no competing parties to the Baath Party; no nongovernmental organizations to speak of; and, worst of all, the fragile middle class, which should have carried out democratic transformation, was dwindling due to ongoing wars, long years of sanctions, and the regime’s socioeconomic policies. Other difficulties included the lack of a strong industrialized economy and a long history of political violence.

Complicating the picture further was the fact that the change was not the result of long-term internal evolution (as was the case in the Soviet Union, for example), but an abrupt act by an outside force. Consequently, when the Baath Party was ousted from power in April 2003, there were no organized domestic forces (except for the Kurds) capable of filling the vacuum and stabilizing the chaotic situation, a sine qua non for the functioning of any normal polity, let alone democracy.

Islamic extremism received a significant boost after the fall of the Baath, and this made matters even worse. Islamist forces, both Shias and Sunnis, were held in check by Saddam Hussein, and now they came out forcefully. The problem is not that Islam is in itself incompatible with democracy, but that its traditional lack of a separation between religion and state works against it. Indeed, where ther...