In the Arena

Democracy: The Fable

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David Ignatius has a fascinating column this morning, in which it is claimed that Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi–now there’s a duet!–prevented the CIA from covertly supporting moderate and secular politicians in the 2005 Iraqi elections, even as Iran was backing the Shi’ite religious list with lots of dough.

Rice’s faith in democracy is touching, but it has been fairly disastrous. Her insistence on Palestinian elections in early 2006, even though both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority wanted to postpone them, led to the Hamas victory and subsequent chaos. And the notion that the U.S. should play fair in Iraq, even though we knew Iran wasn’t, is another example of Bush’s “Quiet American” foreign policy–high-minded and lethal. (Of course, the Bush insistence on pristine elections didn’t extend to the cities of Ohio, where insufficient voting machines were provided and created long, long lines of discouraged Democrats.)

The CIA’s belief that it could influence the Iraqi elections is less fanciful than the Rice-Pelosi utopianism, but still not very realistic. It might have helped to get the Sunnis to come out and vote, but the idea that the election could be swung to former CIA favorite Iyad Allawi seems quite absurd. Every Iraqi election so far has been a census rather than an actual election. Kurds vote for Kurds. Sunnis vote for Sunnis. Shi’ites vote Sadr or the Hakim family (or other clan-related parties and affinities). There simply hasn’t been much support for exiles like Allawi or the vile Ahmed Chalabi, who couldn’t even win a seat in the last election.

Two final points:
1. This is almost a cliche, but it bears repeating: having an election doesn’t mean you have a democracy. Having a democracy depends on strong public institutions, the rule of law, freedom of the press, a solid middle class. It seems clear–in Iraq, in Palestine, in every other country in the middle east–that any attempt to establish a democracy without those prerequisites leads to chaos and the aggrandizement of the better organized elements, which usually means religious extremists.

2. There’s been a fair amount of blather in the blogosphere that the U.S. is now trying to install Allawi as Nouri al-Maliki’s replacement. The fact that Allawi has hired a DC lobbyist is seen as evidence of this. Nonsense. As Ignatius writes, if the CIA were actually backing an Allawi-led coup, he wouldn’t need a lobbyist. The mistakes of the Bush Administration are spectacular enough. There is no need to encrust them with spy movie paranoia about coup attempts (and now, finally, after four years of bitter experience, I’d guess that the CIA and U.S. military have a pretty clear sense of Allawi’s profound unpopularity in Baghdad).