As the military phase of the campaign against Saddam Hussain’s Iraq approaches its denouement, the experts are now turning their attention to what comes next. The steps by which this next phase has at last become inevitable have proved to be far less sanguine than was originally anticipated. Much has been said and written about the miscalculations that beset the original scenario. The Pentagonists, who trumped the proponents of a more massive and prudent preparation for Mr Bush’s war, and who failed to adequately factor the power of anti-colonialism and strident Islamism into their strategic calculations, appear to have carried the day despite themselves, but at a greater cost in lives, treasure and social chaos than anybody wanted or anticipated. The latter, in fact, i.e, social chaos, may turn out to be the greatest cost of all.
Because of the considerable disparity between words and deeds, the search is on for scapegoats. There are reputations to be protected and egos to be saved. The outcome of this struggle will have a major bearing on which factions will become the designated arbiters of the shape that Iraqi society and politics will take once the guns are finally silent. Everybody, of course, is paying lip-service to democracy. It has become practically a cliche that it is the Iraqi people who must be allowed to choose their own post-Saddam political path. There is a closet war underway between the State Department, the CIA and the Pantagonists over whose scenario for achieving these worthy ends will prevail. Right now, the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Cheney team appears to have the upper hand, since nothing succeeds like apparent success. The trouble with all of the proposed scenarios, however, is that none appear to be overly cognizant of the fact that democracy is a system of government that by definition cannot be imposed from above. It must be grown from below. Proof of this is provided by the case of Pakistan. Over the past half century, with the US acting as facilitator, four Pakistani military dictators assured their people and their US sponsors that popular government can be imposed from the top. The result is there for all to see. General/aka-President Pervez Musharraf and his military predecessors have ruled, and rule today, Pakistan from their residences in the army cantonments, not from the parliament building..
In the case of Iraq, achieving the open polity in a place where democracy has never really been tried, where for thirty years what potentiality for accommodational politics existed was ruthlessly crushed by one of this century’s most vicious dictators, where inter-ethnic racism has been an unremitting fact of life, will try the patience of the gods. These facts alone will inevitably tempt Iraq’s conquerors, good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding, to incline toward political shortcuts, especially since the American President is already on record as regarding “nation-building” (i.e, slow, patient, and expensive socio-political reform) as a repugnant enterprise with which no self-respecting neo-con should soil his hands. The fruits of that repugnance have already been demonstrated in the shameful neglect of Afghanistan’s reconstruction since the Taliban blight was excised.
One must then add the sorry record which American diplomacy has rung up all the way back to the Cold War where the underlying challenge repeatedly was promoting the very nation-building processes that Mr Bush finds so unpalatable. Other than NATO, the tendency over and over was and continues to be to opt for the easy way out and either tolerate, encourage or subsidize military-dominated governments in the name of “efficiency” and realpolitik. When the Democracy Movement erupted in China in the 1980s, the US not only stood passively by while hundreds of youthful idealists were slaughtered, but ultimately put their implicit seal of approval on the perpetrators by doing business with them in the aftermath. It was called “constructive engagement”, whose rationale was (and continues to be) trying to leverage a country away from dictatorship and political repression by whetting the leadership’s appetite for the riches of the free market. The cost was (and continues to be) a regime that makes a mockery of human rights, knowing that it can get away with it as long as it plays ball with the mughals who run the global economy.
We have already alluded to Pakistan. Instead of employing America’s very considerable power and influence to encourage and promote democratic forces in that country from Independence onward, one US administration after another instead chose to placate the reactionary military and other extra-parliamentary groups there who had nothing but contempt for the open society, and did their utmost to subdue and repress every attempt by those who desired to grow democracy to do so. The excuse was and is always the same: One must be “realistic.”
If the Bush administration proves to be sincere about doing what is necessary to facilitate Iraq’s transition from the totalitarian society it has been to the democratic society everybody says they want it to become then there is available a model for undertaking that transition. It is India.
Why India, and not Bulgaria or Romania or Latvia? Because India is a country which has successfully accomplished what Iraq would have to accomplish. And India has done it in a comparable socio-cultural-historical environment. Let us briefly recall how politically India got from there to here.
At Partition, India inherited one of the most pluralistic social worlds on earth. It was Europe with a central government, compelled to accommodate and assimilate into an encompassing polity populations as ethnically diverse and demographically formidable as the French, the Germans, the Italians, the English, the Czechs, the Poles, the Scandinavians, etc. They created the Indian nation from these diverse cultural-linguistic building blocks by proceeding on the premise that India must be a secular state which (a) acknowledges the sanctity of diversity, (b) embodies diversity in a federal constitution that assures equal rights under the law, (c) adopts the universal adult franchise, (d) regularly holds fully free elections, and (e) governs by political consensuses that are fashioned in one central parliamentary body and numerous provincial parliamentary bodies, each of which coterminates with one of the country’s major sub-nationalities.
Although not identical, especially in scale, striking parallels abound between the Iraqi and the Indian cases. An imaginative and dedicated “transitional government” should be able to fashion a governmental system for Iraq that follows the Indian model. Iraq can be constructed as a loose confederation of sub-nationalities owing allegiance to a central system that is secular, democratic and politically flexible. Ethnically coherent provincial structures certainly can be fashioned that confer a culturally reassuring measure of local sovereignty on each, not unlike India’s federality and, for that matter, not unlike the USA’s.
Indian specialists could be recruited to participate in Iraq’s constitution-building process. They could provide guidance and insights into how through nearly a century of dialogue and confrontation between Indian political groups and the British colonial regime a process of constitutional development took place which reflected the accommodations and consensuses needed to enable a highly pluralized, fellow Asian society of continental proportions to create a political structure able to keep the military out of politics and establish a federalized political arena where diverse identities and interests could work out their differences and govern their country in a parliamentary fashion rather than on the battlefield and in the torture chamber.
Yes, the task of accomplishing this will be daunting in the extreme. But by no means impossible. Especially if the United States decides to get serious about nation-building and is willing to spend the time, the money and the expertise, in concert with the international community. The greatest danger lies in that ominous record of past failures that haunts American international statecraft. If it loses patience and walks away, as it has repeatedly done in Afghanistan. If it lapses into its past proclivity to take the easy way out and makes backing military dictators the political short-cut of choice, as it has done in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Then it will not be long before victory on the battlefield will have been all for nought.
HAROLD A. GOULD is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.