I just finished reading a series of articles about Iraq in various conservative magazines, and the good news is undeniable: the Surge is working. Al Qaeda has been routed in the last six months or so, and the Sunni tribes which had been implacably hostile to the United States have now turned around and allied with us in their own self-interest.
An inescapable conclusion about the recent success is that it had nothing to do with Iraqi democracy. One hopes for the success of democracy in Iraq, but it was not democracy that brought down Al Qaeda in Iraq. In fact, it wasn’t even good governance that did the job. Chaos, corruption, and gridlock are still the order of the day within the Iraqi government.
What brought success in Iraq was recognizing and building on the existing tribal structures.
The Sunni tribes have no love for the “foreigners” in Al Qaeda, who bring violence, intimidation, and a challenge to their traditional ways. Realizing this, the U.S. Military did the smart thing: it worked hard at understanding these tribal systems, and partnered with them to uphold their time-honored customs and defeat the interlopers. That was what succeeded against the “insurgency”.
Needless to say, this was a quintessentially conservative strategy. But its success had nothing to do with democracy. In fact, insisting on a working democracy would almost certainly have guaranteed our failure.
This is a hard lesson to learn. However much a people yearns to be free, the removal of a tyrant does not guarantee the emergence of a peaceful liberal democracy.
Whenever the United States pulls out of Iraq, the best we can hope for is to leave behind a stable authoritarian government that is only moderately repressive and brutal towards its own people.
The dream is over.
America is famous for its short attention span. We want to get in, get the job done, and then get out and go back home to watch TV. With this kind of mindset, it’s hard to look at the big picture, which may be a panorama that spans decades or centuries.
Unfortunately for us, the formation of a working democracy is a process that takes centuries.
First of all, there must be a long tradition of the rule of law. If a people has no experience of law except when enforced by the sword of a tyrant, then democracy is unlikely to develop. Organizing an election and persuading people to vote does not create a democracy. In order for the democratic process to succeed, the populace must already trust and respect an order which transcends the whim of the current thug in power.
The United States had experienced centuries of the rule of law — that is, the well-defined and constitutionally limited powers of the King of England and the Parliament — before it could successfully form a constitutional republic.
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Another required condition for democracy to flourish is civil society, a plurality of legally recognized and independent institutions. People who are used to governing themselves within smaller bodies — churches, civic organizations, commercial associations, sporting clubs, etc. — will find it relatively easy to extend the same principles to the entire polity.
The United States had experienced centuries of civil society — the guilds, local councils, universities, etc. in England, supplemented by religious pluralism and well-regulated militias within the colonies — before it could successfully form a constitutional republic.
A third prerequisite for democracy is the availability of a good general education. Not all of the populace has to be educated — the United States and various European democracies were founded by and flourished with a relatively small educated class — but the pool of potential rulers and legislators must be well-educated if the mechanics of democratic government are to be implemented effectively.
The United States had experienced several generations of successfully educating the sons of the landowners and the merchant class before it could successfully form a constitutional republic.
Unfortunately, none of these necessary prerequisites listed above is present in Iraq, or indeed in any Muslim country. With the partial exception of Turkey, for centuries the Islamic countries have known nothing but the rule of the strongman, a unitary society under Islam, and massive illiteracy. The conditions in which democracy might flourish simply do not exist.
Midwifing a democracy in Germany under Allied occupation after World War Two was possible because the necessary prerequisites had existed for centuries in Europe. Expecting the same thing in Iraq is futile. We can maintain a semblance of “democracy” as long as American troops are present, but after they leave the country will inevitably revert to what it has always known.
To create something different, we would have to do what the British did in India: control the civil administration in the country, enforce the use of our own language, and make success for the local administrators dependent upon abiding by our own rules — and we would have to do it for more than two hundred years.
Even if we did have imperial ambitions, we Americans would be unable to wait that long. So, sooner or later, we will get out of Iraq and call what we leave behind “democracy”. After that Iraq will return to something more or less familiar.
It’s like chopping down all the trees in the woods and then scattering a few seeds among the stumps. Why are we inevitably surprised when the resulting garden contains nothing but second-growth pines and weeds?
This is not to say that promoting democracy is a bad idea. Since we are much less likely to be threatened by a democracy than we are by a brutal tyranny, a prudent foreign policy requires that we encourage the emergence of democracies.
But first the necessary conditions for democracy must exist. Since we are unwilling to go the imperial route and force democracy down the throats of our unwilling subjects, what other course might we take?
The first step in solving the problem would be to acknowledge the elephant in the room: democracy does not flourish under Islam. The wishful thinking of George W. Bush does not change this unfortunate fact. Islam is an obstacle to democracy.
The U.S. military successfully co-opted the tribal culture to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, but that tribal culture is not conducive to the development of democracy. The traditional tribal systems in the Middle East can function effectively under a strongman, a regional Sheikh constrained by the local tribal traditions. This is the best we can hope for under current conditions.
And it’s important to realize that these conditions are maintained in stasis by Islam. The tenets of Islamic law do not allow for the development of anything else. The reason why atavistic tribal structures are the norm throughout the Islamic world is that the words of the Prophet have artificially preserved into the third millennium the social and political structures of antiquity.
It is illegal and blasphemous under Islam to construct a society based on the rule of law.
It is illegal and blasphemous under Islam to create the plural institutions necessary for a civil society.
It is illegal and blasphemous under Islam to educate men in non-Koranic subjects, and to educate women at all.
Without a systematic and concerted long-term effort to counter Islam directly, any attempt to promote democracy in Muslim countries is unlikely to succeed. Our goals should include undermining the attraction of Islamic ideas by highlighting and distributing alternative information. Much of Western culture is disturbing and repellent to the Muslim world, but — as is often the case with such things — much of it is also very attractive.
We can be successful, provided that we are unabashed in pursuit of our goal. Islam has been on artificial life-support for the last seventy years thanks to petroleum. It would have withered away by now had it not been for that little gift from Allah.
If it weren’t for the petrodollars, one little push would bring the whole tottering edifice crashing down.
Dictatorship, poverty, brutality, and backwardness are the norm across the Muslim world, and Islam is systemically designed to keep the situation this way. Despotism and violence are the order of the day from Algeria and Libya across Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, branching off in one direction across South Asia and India to the archipelagos of the Indian Ocean, and into Equatorial Africa in the other.
How likely is it that democracy will emerge in these places?
The opposite is much more likely; namely, that the gradual Islamization of Europe and other parts of the West will erode the existing Western democracies. If we mount no resistance to it, an imperceptible but steady reduction of liberty will prepare our people for the inevitable merger of the Islamic method of governance with our own. Eventually the term “democracy” will become an empty tool of the propagandists, with no more meaning than the word “republic” in the People’s Republic of China.
A cold-eyed empirical evaluation points towards the containment, isolation, and quarantine of the existing Islamic states.
Only after that will a focus on democratization become a luxury that we can afford.