City Journal

Stanley Kurtz
After the War
It might be possible to bring democracy to Iraq and other Middle Eastern autocracies. But it will be hard.
Winter 2003

After the war, what kind of government should the U.S. seek for post-Saddam Iraq? Foreign-policy experts are divided. As long as the new rulers don’t sponsor terror against us, one argument goes, nothing else matters. If they are autocrats, but friendly autocrats, fine. The other view holds that we can guarantee our long-term security only by forcibly democratizing Iraq, and eventually other Middle Eastern tyrannies, just as we brought democracy to defeated Japan after World War II. Given the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terror, a freedom-loving, democratic, and prosperous Middle East is essential to our future safety, in this view—no real democracies have ever gone to war with each other, after all, and we saw on September 11 what harm the citizens of “friendly” Arab autocracies can inflict on us.

But if we do decide to try to impose democracy on Iraq, it will be far harder than proponents of democratization recognize. It will entail long, unremitting U.S. effort. Pushed too fast, it could aggravate communal strife, or even usher in Islamic dictatorship. In the end, I haven’t decided if that effort will be worth it. But before we commit ourselves, we had better be quite clear about what we are getting into.

The democratizers’ model for transforming Iraq is America’s post–World War II occupation of Japan. There, they say, we entered a country as alien and anti-democratic as any Middle Eastern dictatorship, militarily imposed a liberal constitution, and brought the public around to democracy almost overnight, chiefly by encouraging and supervising elections.

The truth is very different. In embracing democracy under American occupation, the Japanese drew on a long, if imperfect, democratic tradition. Within a generation of Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 arrival in Uraga Bay, opening the country to the outside world for the first time in 250 years, Japan’s leaders had enacted an ambitious series of reforms, amounting to a social and political revolution. Known as the Meiji Restoration, this revolution from above greatly limited the power of the Meiji emperor, giving Japan a modern central government, new civil and criminal codes, and, from 1889 on, an authentic constitutional system. Though initially just the wealthiest 1 percent elected the new parliament, by the 1920s all adult males had the vote.

Encouraging the Meiji Restoration’s reforms was the “liberty and popular rights” movement—a remarkable efflorescence of the liberal spirit that deeply and enduringly changed Japanese society. As early as the 1870s, this intellectual movement had disseminated such Western thinkers as Mill and Rousseau to the farthest corners of Japan, where their influence inspired the Japanese to demand democracy. The movement sparked the growth of hundreds of vibrant political associations, some developing into authentic national parties. Western political concepts like that of a “loyal opposition” became part of the nation’s political culture.

Even after the Meiji rulers imposed military rule in the 1930s, belief in democracy endured for many Japanese. In liberalizing Japan during the occupation, the U.S. merely had to shove the Japanese back onto the democratic road they had been voluntarily roaring down for nearly a century.

Efforts to democratize a country require more than modern liberal ideas; they require a class of people who embrace those ideas and make them effective. Had a sophisticated modern bureaucratic class not been on hand to accept and implement democratic reforms, the American occupation of Japan would not have succeeded. To be sure, excessive bureaucracy can suffocate democratic liberty, but modern bureaucracies are generally democratizing forces. They embody intrinsically modern, democratic ideas—that the government office is distinct from the individual who holds it, for example, and that rules apply to all with equal force. They blow apart traditional social relations—relations that are often powerful barriers to democratic reform—by centralizing authority and power in a national government.

Japan’s relatively modern bureaucratic class was in place even before the Meiji Restoration. Many former samurai, displaced by history from their traditional military role, had moved into administrative positions. No egalitarians, these men possessed a profound sense of superiority and entitlement, based on a conviction that they had transcended the petty selfishness of the ordinary man to devote themselves to a higher good. In the administrative realm, their elite spirit of nobility and sacrifice took the form of an ethic of detachment, incorruptibility, and public-spiritedness—ideal virtues for modern bureaucratic elites. Once Meiji Japan began to copy Western bureaucratic and meritocratic models, the samurai, with their background in government service, fit right in and helped make those models work in their new Japanese setting, especially since these men had come under the influence of the liberty and popular-rights movement, whose leaders were displaced samurai like themselves.
The distinctive samurai ethic of public service put an enduring stamp on the Japanese democracy that emerged from the American occupation. To this day, many scholars describe Japan as a “bureaucratic polity,” with government bureaucrats running the country, the political parties, and the industries too.

Nothing comparable to Japan’s liberal intellectual tradition and modern, public-spirited bureaucratic class exists in Iraq or in any Arab country. The influence of fundamentalist Islam in the Arab world reflects a culture deeply inhospitable to democratic and liberal principles. In a perceptive recent National Interest article, Adam Garfinkle explains that, whereas democracies take as bedrock assumptions that political authority lies with society, that the majority rules, and that citizens are equal before the law, Arab societies vest political authority in the Qur’an, rest decision-making on consensus, and understand law and authority as essentially hierarchical. They lack such essential cultural preconditions for democracy as the idea of a loyal opposition or the rule of law or the separation of church and state. No surprise, given their nonmodern political beliefs, that not one Arab Muslim country qualifies as “free” in Freedom House’s annual survey, and that a disproportionate number of Arab regimes qualify in the “worst of the worst” category—the least free and least democratic on earth.

Arab Muslim societies remain un-modern and un-democratic not just in their attitudes toward political authority and law but also in their social organization. For men and women living within a universe where tribal identity, the duties and benefits of extended kinship networks, and conceptions of collective honor organize the relations of everyday life, democratic principles will be incomprehensible.

And therefore democracy would be impossible. How could a modern, democratic bureaucracy function, for example, if officials remain loyal primarily to tribe, faction, or family? The power of such ties preempts any ethic of disinterested public service. A government office becomes a means of benefiting your family and harming your enemies, not applying the rules fairly. Saddam’s Iraq largely functions like one big tribal patriarchy, with Saddam the patriarch. His kin, together with members of his tribe and allied tribes, rule.

Iraq has closed itself off from the West for so long that we don’t know exactly how its kinship and tribal networks function beneath the level of political power, especially since it is a relatively urbanized country, where perhaps only 15 percent of the population still lives in traditional tribal settings. The best we can do is to use a modern Arab metropolis like Cairo as a proxy. Though Cairo is in many respects a modern city, traditional kinship ties matter tremendously within it.

In Cairo, for example, marriage negotiations, and the extended process of family scrutiny that such negotiations entail, are unbelievably complicated—and potentially quite dangerous. A single untoward remark or social misstep by any family member can sink a prospective marriage; failed negotiations in turn put the family reputation—and thus the marriageability of every family member—at risk. Since the families you ally yourself with in marriage determine your level of access to credit, education, food, housing, and a host of other goods, loss of reputation is a disaster. The social importance of reputation explains why a practice like veiling is so difficult to reform. With a family’s honor tied to the modesty of its female members, a young woman’s refusal to veil will likely result in the loss of marriage prospects not only for her but for everyone in her family—and with those prospects, the path to success.

Democratization skeptics, like the National Interest’s Garfinkle, believe that the presence of such nonmodern beliefs and practices—and the corresponding absence of democratic habits and beliefs—will act as a massive cultural barrier to democratizing Iraq or any other Middle Eastern tyranny. Even if we overthrow Saddam’s quasi-tribal terror state and hold elections, these skeptics reasonably argue, it is likely that either another tribal clique will move into power (elections becoming mere proxies for ethnic and tribal conflict, eventually leading to coups and civil strife) or a broad Islamic movement will take charge (a traditional way of overcoming tribal hostility), and we’ll face an elected Islamic theocracy. Neither alternative, needless to say, will lead to a modern democratic society.

After all, experience shows that the elections-are-all-you-need approach to democracy building doesn’t work. Political scientist Thomas Carothers notes that only a few of the nearly 100 countries currently considered “in transition” to democracy seem truly on course—Chile, Hungary, Poland, Taiwan, a few others. The rest—from the Congo to Uzbekistan—suffer from endemic corruption, elections of dubious legitimacy, and other problems that make them anything but real democracies. What’s missing in the failures, Carothers argues, are the cultural and historical preconditions of democracy that are also so notably absent in Iraq and the Arab nations generally.

Still, if avid democratizers are too optimistic, perhaps Garfinkle and other skeptics are too pessimistic. If Iraq currently lacks a modernizing, democratizing class, like Japan’s samurai bureaucrats, might it not be possible to create a sector of Iraqi society that embraces liberal principles—a new, modern bureaucratic class that could then spark a liberalization of the larger society and the government, just as the samurai did in Japan?

In fact, there is a good historical precedent for just such a development: that is precisely what happened when the British ruled India. British rule in the subcontinent, let it be said at once, is a highly imperfect model of democratization. The Raj was often cruel and exploitative. And though a few British thinkers and bureaucrats may have understood the Raj’s 150-year imperium as the midwife of Indian self-rule, for the most part the British brought democracy to the Indians more or less by accident, in fits and starts. But by educating and training—and employing—English-speaking Indians to assist them in administering the empire, the British ended up forging a liberal-minded indigenous class that eventually could run a modern nation on its own.

A pivotal figure in this development is Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), the so-called father of modern India. Broadly educated in Indian languages, he went on to master English and work for the British East India Company, where he developed ideas that led to the first modernizing movement within Hinduism—a crucial stage on India’s path to modern democracy.

Roy shows how it is possible to take an ancient, nonmodern tradition (like Islam, say) and—without seeming to violate it, and indeed while cherishing much that is valuable in it—to transform it substantially and adapt it to the modern condition. Roy used the philosophical ideas found in the earliest Hindu scriptures to criticize the polytheism and some of the practices of popular Hinduism, such as sati—widow burning. Yet he indignantly rejected the disdain for Hinduism that Christian missionaries and British liberals so casually showed. Immersed in Hinduism’s rich philosophical tradition, Roy defended Hindu pride against British prejudice and simultaneously argued for liberalizing change within the Hindu tradition. The surest route to modern life for Muslim societies may be just such an internal reformation of their Islamic tradition rather than a forcible extirpation of it. If democracy is to succeed in the Middle East, an Islamic Roy may have to arise.

Roy’s movement, the Brahmo Society, began its work in 1828. Its followers came from the new, English-educated Indian middle class—the bureaucrats, clerks, doctors, lawyers, merchants, teachers, and technicians who worked in some capacity for the East India Company. The Society became the first Indian model of successful acculturation to modernity.

The great British historian and administrator Thomas Babington Macaulay dramatically accelerated the modernization that Roy began. In 1835, shortly after Roy’s death, Macaulay penned a powerful memorandum, “Macaulay’s Minute,” that persuaded the British to introduce a comprehensive system of English-language education in India. The primary goal, said Macaulay, was to create a class of Indians sufficiently versed in English to help the British rule. But beyond that, Macaulay sought to fashion an Indian class “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”—a modernizing class imprinted with British cultural values, in other words. The British devised an educational program that made the study of English literature and the British humanistic classics the core of the curriculum. Long after the British had disappeared from the subcontinent, Macaulay prophesied, an Indian elite educated in this program would embody an “imperishable empire” of British values. While Indian cultural values remain strong in India, Macaulay in a sense got his way, as well. Macaulay’s Minute began the process of relative Anglicization and accelerated the cultural transformation that Roy had begun, a transformation that pushed India into the modern world.

Before the new indigenous elite arose, however, at least one early-nineteenth-century British modernizing effort failed disastrously, proving that it is not enough to blow up existing social structures and assume that, when the dust settles, the fragments will re-form into something recognizably modern. Liberal British administrators wanted to shatter the power of traditional village landlord elites and give individual farmers control over their own land. Like famed Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto today, they believed that once the right property relations were in place, an explosion of free enterprise and productivity would follow. It didn’t happen. The British destroyed the traditional Indian system of village rule and created a market in land, but the Indians showed no signs of developing a liberal, capitalist ethos. Private ownership by itself was insufficient to bring deeper cultural change. So British administrators had to step in, at great and ultimately unsupportable expense to the British Treasury.

By the 1870s and 1880s, even though the British still greatly restricted Indian participation in the higher levels of the Indian Civil Service, the reformed educational system had created an indigenous class that was capable of using the language of liberalism to demand a bigger role for Indians in their own affairs. To rein in the out-of-control costs and to mollify Indian demands for greater self-rule, the British devolved some administrative responsibilities to local councils with joint Indian and British membership. Independence still remained decades away, but the nationalist movement that would bring it about—with the English-educated Indian middle classes at its head—was born. With a national consciousness well established by centralized imperial rule, and with 150 years of British education and experience with liberal British legal and administrative principles, an independent India would become one of the most successful experiments in democracy the non-Western world has known.

Can we do deliberately in Iraq what the British did inadvertently in India? Can we kindle democracy by creating a modern, liberal-minded bureaucratic class of Iraqis?

Since Iraq already has plenty of well-educated engineers and technicians, who have built modern highways and chemical plants but not even a hint of modern democracy, you might think not. But modern technical training in medicine or virology or nuclear physics isn’t the same thing as a liberal education; you can have modern technical skills and an un-modern worldview. In India, Macaulay’s educational reforms explicitly set out to create an indigenous spiritually liberal and modern class. Iraq’s educational system isn’t aimed at anything of the kind; accordingly, it doesn’t graduate public-spirited, liberal-minded people, capable of modern democracy.

The essential step toward building a democratic Iraq after the war, then, would be to transform Iraq’s education system to mold a liberal governing elite. Beginning in kindergarten, the new Iraqi educational system would inculcate liberal values. Primary schools would teach some English, and students who showed facility would go on to English-language secondary schools and colleges. The best of these upper-level English-language institutions would be boarding schools, mixing students from all the confessional, ethnic, linguistic, regional, and tribal groups within Iraq. The curriculum at all levels would be secular and humanistic, a mental universe removed from the mere rote learning practiced in madrassas. Shakespeare and Dickens would be the spiritual reference points, although Arab history and literature would of course be included. Students would constantly hear about the importance of public-spiritedness and fairness and equality before the law, as opposed to tribal and kin-based favoritism. Government and the professions would recruit from graduates of this system. The recruits should be well paid, to discourage corruption and to give this new class glamour. Years of adult experience as part of a functioning modern, liberal bureaucracy will be every bit as essential to this cultural change as early schooling.

Such an education in liberty would have no hope of transforming more than a small fraction of the Iraqi population. But the new elite could be quite small in numbers and still bring about enormous change. The samurai were only 6 percent of the Japanese population; the English-educated Indian bureaucrats were only 1 or 2 percent of India’s population.

Without a preexisting modern Iraqi class to work with, Americans would have to take a leaf from the British and run these schools and train and supervise the new bureaucratic elite themselves (with help from allied democracies), until a new generation of liberally educated Iraqis could govern on their own. Until then, national elections might have to wait. But elections for local councils could certainly go forth, as the new class developed.

Compared with the 150-year British Raj, several decades of direct or indirect American rule in Iraq might not seem like a long time. Yet they would surely tax American patience, will, and resources. A long-term American presence in Iraq, especially as a teacher of Western ways, might also provoke an anti-American backlash in the Arab world. Moreover, it might not even produce a democratic Iraq: the Arab world may turn out to be far more resistant to modernization than Japan or India. Yet the other alternatives in Iraq—imposing new “friendly” autocrats or letting the chips fall where they may—pose their own real dangers.

An understanding of what it will take to bring democracy to Iraq gives comfort to both sides in the democratization debate. We face a sobering choice. We need to make it with our eyes wide open.

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