The massive investment of the United States in the liberation of Iraq may now be limiting the political options available for the reconstruction of that country. Reluctance by the Bush Administration to produce a timeline for the transition to an elected Iraqi government reveals the Administration's fear that the Shi'ite majority will place hard-line clerics in positions of power. Such an outcome would be politically disastrous for the President, depriving administration officials of their last defense for an increasingly unpopular war-that being the now standard retort that "at least the Iraqis are better off without Saddam." Should an oppressive, undemocratic regime of any kind come to power, it would symbolize not only wasted lives and dollars but also the rejection of values that Americans hold dear, such as liberty, representative government, and constitutional protections. Even venturing the possibility of an Islamist takeover or the return to despotic rule in Iraq begs the question of how any nation could be so ungrateful as to reject the political designs of its liberator?
But exactly what are those designs? The United States' proposal on Iraq as submitted to the U.N. Security council reaffirmed the right of the "Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future" and, further, "that the day when Iraqis govern themselves must come quickly." Yet many Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere and even some Americans seem to doubt these imperatives. Perhaps this skepticism arises from the lack of specifics in such documents as to the nature of any future Iraqi government. Even administration officials seem uncertain as to the exact form of government that should be installed. Does it require the full complement of liberal values to give it legitimacy? Will some subset of values and institutions that attempt to strike a compromise between Islam and democracy be acceptable? More importantly here, is there any wriggle room for "self-determination" in this emerging experiment in Islamic liberalism? These are not questions for the Iraqis; they must be answered by us, the Americans, the "liberators."
The inability to answer these questions now some six months after the President's declaration of the war's end demonstrates the limited options available to the Iraqis in reconstructing their social order. It is obvious that there is a finite set of political structures available to Iraq that will satisfy the Bush Administration; yet the vagueness of these options has placed both the Iraqis and American policymakers in a quandary. Action must be taken, but what is that action and who should take it? Both proponents and critics of the Iraq war are arriving at the common conclusion that the United States is fast approaching the point of decision. Either we must allow the Iraqis the right to develop their own system of governance or we must devise a framework for them. Otherwise, we risk continued hostilities with Muslim nations and, worse, exacerbating the terrorism that the war was intended to curb.
Both these alternatives have obvious pitfalls, however. The enabling of self-determination risks the aforementioned installation of a Shi'ite clerical regime that could precipitate retributive persecutions of Sunni Muslims. Moreover, it chances the establishment of a new Iraqi government that is undemocratic and anti-American, causing endless domestic criticism and political fallout that might well determine the 2004 presidential election. Imposition of a U.S. designed political structure risks the typical pitfalls of illegitimate government: destablilization, factional strife, and absence of popular support. In short, we are faced with a situation of perpetual conflict not unlike the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but with the possibility of continual loss of American lives and an endless drain on American resources.
More fundamentally, the Iraq experience calls into question whether the right to self-determination will remain a fixture in the pantheon of democratic values. Some would undoubtedly question whether it ever achieved such status. Admittedly, the institutions that formed in occupied countries during the colonial era were largely not "self-determined." However, the right has been repeatedly articulated in the classic documents of democracy, such as the acknowledgement in the American Declaration of Independence that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" and that when government "becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." Certainly there was optimism at the end of the Cold War that developing countries could be exposed to these principles of a free society and trusted with self-rule given the reduced risk of "infection" by atheistic communism.
However, terrorism appears to have altered this dynamic once again. It may be that the self-determination of peoples in an age of global terrorism has simply become a luxury that we can no longer afford. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has become a "right" only for those who choose "rightly." In other words, newly forming or reforming societies such as that in Iraq that are wise enough to choose the suite of liberal values that enable their full membership and participation in a global order will be granted the right of self-determination. Those nations "obtuse" enough to pick from the scattered remains of collectivism, monarchism, fascism, Islamism or any hybrids thereof will be subject to forcible reordering of their societies on a moment's notice. Yet one quickly observes that in such a scenario there is nothing to be "determined" at all.
On immediate inspection this new form of "predetermined" self-determination appears somewhat appealing, especially to the developed world. It certainly eliminates suspense as to political and economic structures that will emerge in developing nations. When the fine details are ultimately hammered out for a Palestinian state, for example, we can be sure that its inventory of institutions will include free elections and free markets at the very least. Yet liberalism has always been a somewhat nebulous concept and, therefore, dependent upon the existence of non-liberal societies to illuminate both its virtues and its potential vices. Protestant theologian and social theorist Reinhold Niebuhr once commented that he feared the radical triumph of either communism or democratic capitalism given their common materialistic foundations that threaten the ideal of "Christian personality." The communism that Niebuhr came to despise existed for almost a century as the antithesis by which liberal cultures were judged. In an age in which Cuba and North Korea exist as rather pathetic remnants of that failed social philosophy, Islam remains the only viable alternative to democratic capitalism. Are we certain enough of Francis Fukuyama's judgment that civilization may well have reached the "end of history" that we are willing to snuff out all other social experiments, even those that may well illuminate Western shortcomings?
In one sense it would seem that self-determination is perhaps the least expendable of all democratic values. As Americans, of all peoples, must realize, nations are to a considerable degree self-constituted; moreover, those that are the products of others' desires have a high probability of failure. The Israeli-Palestinian quagmire is largely the product of arbitrary boundaries drawn by imperialist forces convinced that the reasoned construction of "modern" polities could overcome the institutional intransigence resulting from millennia of religious and tribal warfare. Nations can indeed learn from the experiences of others, but they cannot simply adopt the results of hundreds of years of social and political evolution in other societies as starting points for their own experiments in democratic government. Countries must determine their own unique positions on the continuum of liberalism through trial and error, adapting their institutions to their unique cultural and historical situations. Any formula that the United States produces for Iraqi democracy (and the strangeness of this phrase itself encapsulates the problem) must recognize the need for substantial Iraqi involvement.
Even a system that would exceed all expectations insofar as its commitment to democratic values is concerned, and that would have the potential to become the "beacon of liberty" that Administration officials desire ultimately will be resented by the Iraqi people if it is perceived as being imposed from without. The United States would do well to recognize this now and produce a timetable with critical determinations for the Iraqis, even at risk of enabling the introduction of undemocratic elements as part of the transitional government. The race for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere is a marathon, not a sprint. No ideal system will emerge in the immediate term regardless of American urgency.
However, delays in production of a timetable for political transition call into question any sense of American urgency for Iraq's reconstruction. Moreover, these delays symbolize a bizarre mix of uncertainty and elitism in American foreign policy. The success of the United States as a beacon of constitutional liberty to the world demands in theory that everyone should taste democracy. In practice, however, Americans fear the political consequences of such experiments. Americans fear rejection of their values even as they worry about the added political and economic complexity that might accompany the adoption of those values by developing countries in an increasingly global society.
In a scenario in which self-determination is truly valued by the liberating nation or nations, the people of the liberated society would shoulder much of the burden for their own successes and failures. Pressure could be exerted to guide new or reforming nations toward political systems that offer minimum democratic standards, but no one size fits all social order is likely ever to be discovered. Thus beacons for democratic government in diverse parts of the world are called for to offer region-specific models that blend together unique cultural elements.
If one accepts this proposition, then one might also suggest that the beacon of democracy that the Administration desires for the future in the Middle East may be emerging not in Iraq but Iran . The austerity of Shiite clericalism is causing many Iranians to reassess both the virtues of Islamism and the flaws of liberalism. Just as they did in the seventies, Iranian student factions are beginning to recognize the failures of their society and are leading the charge to something they hope will be better. Yet it is unlikely that any new Iranian government that might emerge would be based on the Western model. It may be that Iran, having tasted Western values and affluence (however concentrated in its class structure) under the Shah, is in a better position than Iraq to assess the merits and flaws of these respective systems. Consequently, it may be in a better position to craft some "hybrid" structure that blends together elements of both. Although Fareed Zakaria and others have been critical of "incremental" liberal approaches to democracy among developing nations, it may be that some "illiberal steps" are required in achieving forms of liberal democracy that embody freedoms similar to those that we enjoy in the West.
Yet even hinting that the Iranian experience may foreshadow the political fate of Iraq begs the question of whether Iraq will have to experience similar pain in its transition to a more free and stable society-which has been the assumed goal of both the Iraqi people and the American government. It is also unclear how the West might aid such an effort. Will the nine-figure investment by the United States (and hopefully other nations) in Iraq ultimately payoff, or is the short-term reconstruction plan doomed to failure because any quick-fix to the Iraqi dilemma must necessarily fail? The desire for immediate return on this massive investment compels decisions that are designed to reflect instant progress, but achievement of that goal may well be at the expense of long-term stability. Nation-building is an arduous task and one that imposes trials in order to achieve successes. And it is the Iraqis themselves who must ultimately determine when political, economic, and other goals are accomplished. In that regard, it is well past time for the American government to allow Iraq to get on with the process of its own reconstruction, however flawed, so that the hard knocks of political transition can be overcome by the sense of self-worth brought about by empowerment.