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Democracy in Iraq?

By John Silveira

Issue #88 • July/August, 2004

To introduce democracy into Iraq. That's the plan. It's supposed to make Iraq stable and bring the Iraqis a long way along the road toward being "civilized."

But didn't they already have a democracy? As I recall, they had elections before we got there. And though Saddam somehow managed to get 100% of the vote, it was still a democracy, wasn't it? You say it wasn't a true democracy because he limited who was allowed on the ballot? Well for decades we didn't allow communists, nazis, or any other "undesirables" on the ballot. And today the two major parties have made it almost impossible for any other third parties to have access to the ballot. But we still call ourselves a democracy, don't we?

Why do we care whether they're democratic, anyway? What are the supposed benefits to the Iraqis of democracy? Freedom? Claire Wolfe has pointed out that almost all the dictatorships that exist today are "democracies." The former Soviet Union was a democracy, as were their former satellites which included Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc. But, somehow, they weren't democracies such as we have. For all our faults, ours has been pretty good—so far. So, perhaps we should ask what is it that has made ours different, even though we haven't always had a democracy to be proud of? And, since it's "worked," isn't our kind of democracy the kind we should be trying to sell them?

Democracy is more than just voting

Democracy is clearly more than just voting. It's a state of mind. It only works so long as the democratic process is respected. And it hasn't always been respected here. In the 19th century, before there was a feeling of unity in this country, it was not uncommon for gangs to hang out at the polls to keep other voters, particularly immigrant voters, from voting. American polling places often saw gang violence. And in the South blacks were deprived of the vote for a century after the Civil War. Yet, somehow we stumbled along and we never stopped believing we were democratic.

So, maybe there's more than democracy we should be giving them. But what else? What makes ours work?

For a democracy to work properly the individual has to be cherished along with his individual rights that can't be taken away. Even the Athenians of ancient Greece, whom I've admired so much, didn't worship the concept of individual rights and freedoms the way we Americans do, else, how could the mob have voted away Socrates' freedom of speech, actually sentencing him to death as they did? And because they didn't believe in individual rights, freedom itself didn't always exist in Athens. This despite the fact they were the first great democracy.

So, what the Iraqis need, more than democracy and the right to vote, is the concept of individual rights. It has to be understood that every adult has the right to free speech, worship, personal arms, fair trials, etc. Read our Bill of Rights. That's what they need. In particular, read the 9th and 10th Amendments. The 9th makes it clear that our rights go beyond the few that are listed in the Constitution, and that they are not government granted rights. They are natural or God-given rights that have to be respected. The 10th claims that the powers the government can have over the individual are limited and not arbitrary. Once the citizens believe in that, tyranny becomes harder to impose.

This concept of individual freedoms coupled with democracy didn't come easily. It took centuries. But Western countries have had a history of philosophers that talked about individual responsibilities and rights. And in the United States, for the first time in history, a group of men, whom we call the Founding Fathers, set about creating a country, and they incorporated their beliefs of individual freedoms into the country they formed.

Democracy as we Americans envision it is still working even though it's under siege. Despite the last half century of collective rights and government granted rights that the left, and now the neoconservatives, have tried to force on us, the concept of individual freedoms remains strong and, so far, refuses to die.

But the fact is that in Iraq, as in most other countries outside of the West, there is no real history of individual rights and freedoms. Their philosophers, and certainly their religious leaders, don't address these things. Individual rights and freedoms are, like the Americans themselves, foreign to them. Would Iraqis even understand, let alone embrace, the type of democracy Americans have? And could they keep it, given the fact that we Americans, who have a strong history of individual rights, still wage a struggle to keep our own democracy intact even after 200 years?

Time will tell, I suppose. Democracy finally taking hold in Japan after World War II gives me hope. But I see the poverty and ignorance of the people in Iraq, and I am not all that hopeful.

Read More by John Silveira

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