Iraq and Democracy

Posted on June 17, 2014 by

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The incomparable Thomas Sowell tackles a basic question: why have we failed in Iraq? We fought a war, at least in part, to overthrow the Iraqi government with the goal of removing it as a threat in the “war on terror.” The U.S. determined that the best way to accomplish this goal in the long-term was to democratize the country and make it a model of success and stability in the Middle East.

Now, Iraq is in danger of slipping into extremism. The situation has deteriorated to the point that President Obama has ordered 275 U.S. troops to Baghdad in order to protect American diplomatic personnel. Though we can argue about the extent of American efforts in the nation, and whether or not large numbers of troops should still be present, this appears to be clear evidence that our intentions were not enough to stabilize the nation.

Sowell argues that democracy is more than a form of government. As an idea, it is built on particular modes of thinking and on the rule of law, which do not exist in Iraq. As Sowell notes, the U.S. acted almost as if elections were not only a necessary but sufficient condition for democracy, as if no other ingredients were required. Remember, even the most tyrannical regimes hold “elections.” In and of themselves, they prove little. He then contrasts Iraq, briefly, with what took place in Germany and Japan after World War II.

Perhaps we have missed an opportunity to plant democracy in the world’s most tumultuous region. Sowell seems to assume, however, that the missing ingredient is American resolve. I am not sure, honestly, whether the cultures of Japan and Germany after World War II were at all equivalent to Iraq’s culture. Those societies treasured order and had long histories of accomplishment. They were burgeoning powers when they went to war. I think Sowell is comparing apples to oranges here. There is more to democracy than just American desire. It seems there must be cultural characteristics that lend themselves to democratic ways of governance. Whether or not Iraq will ever be in such a position remains, it seems, an open question.

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