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Decent Government in Post-Saddam Iraq By: Max Singer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 20, 2003


While there is disagreement whether it will be easy or hard for the US to remove Saddam Hussein, scholars and laymen alike confidently assume that the US will not be able to bring stability or decent government to Iraq without a Japanese-style occupation involving large numbers of American troops for many years.  An Iraqi produced democracy is assumed to be out of the question.

But these cynics who think that the Iraqi future can be read directly from Iraqi history may not be correct.  Before reaching such conclusions we should look at the dynamics that would exist if the Iraqi opposition movement, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) were given a chance to implement its vision of the Iraqi future.

The INC began to make a start toward Iraqi democracy ten years ago when it was created by broad assemblies of Iraqis meeting in northern under the leadership of Ahmad Chalabi an Iraqi from a prominent Baghdad Shia family.

From the beginning Chalabi led the INC as an organization open to all Iraqi groups and opinions – except those of the Baath ruling party – and working in as democratic a fashion as possible for a revolutionary group.  The INC operated in northern Iraq from 1992 to 1996, creating newspapers and radio stations, and other civil institutions, which reflected conflicting views and ideologies, and were visibly open to all segments of Iraq’s heterogeneous population since travel and communication between north and south was feasible.

Since its beginning the INC has been engaged in a process of confronting the difficulties and arguing about how Iraqis could create a government after Saddam that would not succumb to the conflicts that had so obviously failed Iraq in the past.   The problems were obvious.  First, how to hold together the Shia majority of the South and of Baghdad, the Kurdish areas of the North, and the Sunni minority of the center who had dominated Iraq for generations by controlling the officer corps.  Second how to keep any one group from dominating the whole country and oppressing minorities such as Turkomens or Christians (or even oppressing the Shia majority).

Iraqi history provided a model -- not for how t solve the problem, but for what success would look like.  During the times of Ottoman rule the areas that are now Iraq were places where all the ethnic and religious groups were able to coexist, each living according to its own ways without imposing on or dominating others.  (Although non-Moslems were second class citizens, the Jewish community of Baghdad was wealthy and powerful.)  The Imperial power in Turkey had no interest in telling Iraqis how to live their lives, so long as they were loyal subjects of the Empire and of the (pluralist) Caliphate and paid taxes to Istanbul.   In standard imperial manner they insisted on an Ottoman monopoly of power, which in turn preserved internal peace and prevented any Iraqi group from taking over the country.

The problem facing Iraqis in the INC discussions was who or what could hold the country together without imposing the rule of one group over the others.  This in a country where most people’s primary loyalties are to one of the competing ethnic and religious groups and to local clan and tribe, and with a history of brutal and violent struggles for power and little respect for law.

The Iraqis taking part in the INC’s political process had another asset besides their memory of a successful pluralist Iraq under the Ottomans.  That asset was the world-wide spread of democracy.  When democracy had been tried in the Arab world some 70 years earlier it was an exotic flower successful in only a few places.  And in the 1930s Europe itself turned against democracy and made first fascism and then communism models that seemed to be the wave of the future.  But in 1990 things were very different; democracy had clearly triumphed against its totalitarian challengers.  All of Western Europe was solidly and seemingly permanently democratic, as was Japan and India and many countries in all parts of the world (except the Arab lands).  All the powerful and successful countries were democratic (unless one counts China), making it plausible that democracy might be the path to success.  Clearly the evidence of the world was much more in favor of democracy than it had ever been before, despite the fact that democracy had not come to the Arab world, and not much to the Moslem world.

Of course the Iraqis understood that the word “democracy” did not mean just elections, or even free elections; they knew all about countries that had elections without democracy.  Certainly most of them did not have a full understanding of all that is involved in building and maintaining a real democracy.  But the modern world is open enough, and the Iraqis have enough personal experience in the West, to have some appreciation of what a free society is like.

The Iraqis of the INC had a third asset as they tried to figure out a way to govern Iraq after Saddam’s removal: a leader whose extraordinary abilities and character are well-described by English journalist David Rose in the current issue of Vanity Fair.  Ahmad Chalabi is the youngest son of a wealthy Baghdad family that had been at the center of Iraqi politics and public life for generations.  Although he was still a student when the revolution forced his family to flee so that his education was at MIT and the University of Chicago (Ph.D in mathematics), he was already intimately familiar with the ways of Iraqi and Arab politics and personal relations.  After graduation he immediately moved back to the Arab world (Lebanon) where he married an educated Lebanese woman. 

While maintaining his feel for Arab politics and the traditional relationships that still are central to the way that Iraqis relate to each other, Chalabi has also become a man of the West with both a deep sensibility for the character of democracy and great competence at modern tools and honest efficient organization and management.  His preeminent talents are understood by everybody in the Iraqi opposition.

More important, Iraqis understand that Chalabi gave up wealth and ease to risk his life and spend his money to help Iraq eliminate Saddam and create a better government.  Everyone knows that he is not working for personal gain, or for the power of any ideology or faction or ethnic group, but for the rule of law and the Iraqi people.  And it is generally recognized that no one can come close to him in stature, integrity and competence.

While Iraqis are not, as many believe, a separate culture incapable of building democracy, neither are they unusually patriotic, unselfish, or free from the desire for personal power.  During the long struggle against Saddam members of the opposition have been jockeying for personal power and position, indulging in personal rivalries, and other forms of normal democratic political behavior.  Sometimes this has included resentment of and attacks upon Chalabi and the INC, including even temporary alliances with Saddam.  But while plenty of Iraqi politicians are ready to criticize Chalabi, none of them are ever able to get many other Iraqis to join in any effort to remove Chalabi as the recognized leader, much less to support any alternative leader. 

This broad acceptance of Chalabi’s leadership has continued despite long and strong efforts by the US State Department and CIA to encourage the development of alternative leadership.  (The Department and the Agency are influenced by their clientele among the authoritarian Arab regimes who are afraid of the alternative model that Chalabi can create, as well as by personal and bureaucratic antagonism to him.)  The unity of the Iraqi opposition movement for over a decade has been remarkable.  It has been a democratic, pluralist unity, including diverse factions, groups, and individuals, all of whom have had the freedom to criticize, promote their own special causes, and exercise their egos and talents for self-promotion.  But there has been no substantial alternative Iraqi movement that either has an alternative platform to the principles agreed upon by the INC or that proposes an alternative leadership to that of Ahmad Chalabi and the INC.  Individuals or particular groups have freely voiced criticisms or different ideas, but all such alternatives are greeted with silence or indifference by the Iraqi community, because Iraqis understand that the INC led by Chalabi represents them all and is their only hope for unity and success.

Understanding the degree to which the INC is representative of Iraq as well as of the external Iraqi opposition requires an appreciation of the Iraq’s social and political structure.  It is often said that the INC is an “outside” group and that legitimacy can only come from those who have been living in Iraq.  But this partly sound observation fails to take into account the effects of long-time totalitarian rule in Iraq.  Normally the people inside a country are part of a complex social and political structure and can only be represented by people who operate within that structure.  But Saddam has destroyed or dominated all the modern organizations that make up a normal civil society.  Today, apart from Saddam’s totalitarian apparatus, the effective social organization of Iraq is in the traditional extended families, clans, tribes, and ethnic and religious groups that cannot be destroyed, even if they have to refrain from overt political activity.

Iraqis outside the country are able to effectively  representative their families, tribes, and ethnic groups in a way that an exile could not represent a union or a political party inside the country.   Not only is communication across the border more possible within such social and family units than within political organizations, but more important, the links between the exile and his fellows at home within such ascribed groups is stronger because the bonds between individual and group are felt to be permanent, regardless of place or feeling.  Therefore the strength of the INC’s links to the people of Iraq through the very broad representation of traditional Iraqi social units within the INC is greater than a more “modern” Western political analysis would suggest.

While the INC is an “outside” group, influential voices within the INC have substantial legitimacy and creditability within Iraq.  And there is no organization or set of people within Iraq who now have greater legitimacy or authority to speak for Iraqis.  The choice is not between the INC and an inside opposition movement; it is between the INC and the US military acting with the advice of a US State Department concerned with maintaining good relations with Arab governments and its view of other US interests.  And the question is not, who shall rule Iraq?; it is, who shall administer the process of establishing constitutional government in Iraq? 

Therefore we need seriously to consider what the members of the INC have agreed to about the future government of Iraq and what is their ability to implement this agreement if they have an opportunity to do so.

First of all their program (which is described at length on their website: www.inc.org.uk).  It says that “the INC is uniting all opposition forces to work towards the common objectives of saving the Iraqi people from their long national tragedy while at the same time ensuring the territorial integrity and independence of the nation under a democratic, constitutional, parliamentary and pluralistic structure.”  Resolutions originally adopted by the conference of Iraqi delegates at Salahuddin, Iraq, October 27-31, 1992, provided for “a democratic and federally structured Iraq based on the principle of the separation of powers, and the principle of the protection of individual rights and group rights.”   The INC has agreed that the borders of Iraq will be kept, and that within those borders there will be a pluralist, federal state, created, defined, and governed as a nation under law, and committed to the protection of individual rights.  They also agree that the defeat of the Baath will be followed by a reconciliation and amnesty process, with legal punishment only for small numbers of Saddam’s accomplices.  These principles were reaffirmed at a  large meeting of Iraqis in New York in Oct-Nov, 1999, and again by hundreds of Iraqi delegates at the London meeting last month.

The INC vision is to have a national government holding a monopoly of weapons of war, organized as a modern democratic state with limited powers.  That is, no ethnic or religious community would control the national government.   The government will be organized and run by individuals chosen on a legal and democratic basis.  The ordinary daily-life relations between most people and the government would be in the hands of institutions of the separate communities.  Iraq would be a socially diverse country, living as a peaceful and lawful member of the international community, eschewing weapons of mass destruction, and with no designs on the territory of its neighbors.

Creating a new government is always a difficult and uncertain task – and creating the first Arab democracy is an especially chancy business.  But that doesn’t mean that the INC does not have a good chance to succeed.  Let’s consider one scenario.

Suppose that the US Army, pursuant to UN Resolutions finding that the current regime is a threat to the peace, liberates Iraq and takes power in Baghdad, taking control of all the weapons of the Iraqi army and security forces, disbanding those forces and stationing 25,000 US troops on Iraqi military bases and headquarters.  Suppose that the US invites the INC, representing the Iraqi people, to establish an interim government for the purpose of preparing a constitution and arranging for elections to create a new constitutional government of Iraq.  This would not be putting one faction in charge of the country.  There is no competitor to the INC as a broad national organization (all the alleged partial competitors are components of the INC).  And the INC does not represent a particular faction, despite the efforts of the State Department to present it this way.

Iraq is very different from Afghanistan.  The government of Iraq is not a coalition of the armies of independent warlords; it is a centralized totalitarian regime.  The army will not be inclined to divide into local units that go to their home areas resisting central authority.  By and large the troops are Shiite and the senior officers Sunni, and they come from different areas. 

Nor is the country filled with armed bands of warriors that will take control of areas as soon as the central army is disbanded.  Iraq is certainly a country where people are experienced with the dangers of lawless force, and many people are prepared to fight to protect themselves and their community from marauders.  So it is quite possible that many small arms will disappear when soldiers are sent home.  The government will have to recognize that many citizens are armed.  But that doesn’t mean that there will be trained or organized forces that are prepared to fight against platoons of constabulary or soldiers.

The INC would authorize the establishment of interim local governments in all the towns and regions to preserve law and order.  And it would also take control of government agencies needed to ensure adequate distribution of food and medical care.  It would also quickly create a constabulary[1][1][1] force and the beginning of a military force trained and officered from the beginning with a commitment to lawful civilian control.  A modest constabulary force with minimum capabilities could be created in perhaps 60 days.  By the end of a year a reasonably trained and competent constabulary force and some modestly capable infantry companies could be available to overcome local armed resistance to the law if it develops.

Most important, the INC would announce that its purpose and intention is to organize a government of laws for Iraq that protects the individual rights of all Iraqis and does not impose the rule of one group over other groups.  Of course this is so easy to say that this claim will not be automatically accepted.  But if from the beginning this is the real intention of the INC, and if they work hard to act consistently with this purpose, gradually people will come to give at least temporary, suspicious credence to the idea that this is what the INC is trying to do.

How could all this go wrong?  What are the dangers that must be considered?

First, the practical problems: maintaining law and order and ensuring food supplies and public health.  Unless the fighting is much more destructive than expected preexisting  procedures and supplies will be able to handle the bulk of the needs.  Local police forces and authorities can be allowed to handle ordinary maintenance of  order functions for some time without much reason to expect any great problems, although procedures to protect people connected to the previous regime may be required.  Either the central government or the US military may need to give people who are afraid an opportunity to be moved or to go into protective custody.

If outlaw structures, or local proto-warlords, were widespread there would be dangers in leaving weak local authorities in charge for a few months, but that is not true in Iraq today.  It would also be problematic if the Baath Party and its supporters were likely to try to use force to establish power bases in large areas.  But the Baath is so completely discredited, and so obviously without future power in Iraq, that they are very unlikely to expose themselves by such attempts in many places.  The Interim government will quickly have the resources to deal with any local Baath power plays.  If not, then very small units of the US military would be able to handle the problem.

The abuses and problems that may arise from there being no more than limited central government presence during the first few months will be the kind of thing that can be dealt with later without suffering major costs.

The interim government will have plenty of financial resources to quickly improve living conditions because they will have all that Saddam had, plus more because it will be easier for it to sell oil, and the new government will not be diverting large resources to military and security operations.  And of course relief from terror and oppression will be a great benefit for the people.  Since conditions are now so bad, it will be easy to quickly make them better, and when conditions are improving people are inclined to accept the government for a while.

The Iraqis may not now be committed democrats, but if they see personal improvements, and an honest government which is not moving to establish the dominance of any single group, and which has the endorsement of the US, and the US presence seems to suggest that no one else is likely to try to take over in the near future, they are likely to give that government a chance.  Of course there may well be ambitious individuals, or paranoid or greedy groups, who would be inclined to try to seize power.  But such potential power seekers are not likely to find a receptive audience.  The interim government is very likely to have widespread support in protecting itself against power grabs.  All Iraqis will feel strongly about the need to avoid anarchy.  That is, they will  want to protect the government at least until it looks as if it will fail or tries to impose itself excessively.

The great strength of the INC position as they implement their program of moving to establish a government of laws is that they will not be threatening the interests of any large or coherent group.  The Kurds will be offered autonomous federal arrangements – which is what they have agreed to, and what best serves their interests.  Of course at the margin every group will want a little more than they are getting, and there will be many disputes, but dissatisfaction about the result of these kinds of disputes doesn’t have to generate strong enough feelings to provide support for upsetting the apple cart.   There will be no reason for any group to say to itself, “if we don’t stop this process soon it will be a disaster for us or for our interests.”  Everyone will have a good basis for seeing hope and improvement in the future.  “Modern” Iraqis will be attracted by the way the interim government acts and the opportunities it creates.  Traditional leaders will see that the government respects their positions and intends to leave room for traditional structures to continue and to evolve gradually.  Freedom and opportunity will feel good.

Some people argue that a strong occupation of Iraq is necessary to stamp out the vestiges of Saddam’s regime – as US occupation was necessary to remove the Nazi and authoritarian elements of Germany and Japan.  But the analogy may not be sound, because Baathism is not an ideology with a strong hold in the Iraqi population, or elite community.  Saddam has ruled by terror, not by developing a large group of believers.  New habits need to be created, but there will be no large body of supporters who have to be suppressed.  And, since the experience of coping with Saddam has dominated Iraqi thinking in recent years, there are no deep and strong ideological divisions, or well-developed policy schisms that will make it excessively difficult for a new government to gain broad support.  There are divisions within Iraq, but mostly they concern groups who fear that they will be dominated or taken advantage of.  An interim government which can provide reassurance about the protection of individual and group rights and interests is not likely to run into any strong resistances based on policy disputes.

The lack of strong inherent sources of conflict does not guarantee success; people can argue themselves into a stalemate by disagreeing about which color to paint the legislative chamber, and personal rivalries and jealousies arise everywhere.  If the Iraqis don’t find it within themselves to be able to learn to work together, even in favorable conditions, the effort to create a government can fail, perhaps quickly but more likely gradually.  But there is no reason to assume that Iraqis are so incapable of getting along.

One can ask whether this relative optimism about the possibility of the Iraqis establishing a government of laws for themselves depends on the survival of one man, Ahmad Chalabi.  The answer is that Chalabi’s skills, character, and accepted position make it much easier to believe that the inevitable human problems will be adequately dealt with and that there will be intelligent and fair-minded leadership.  But the structural arguments made above apply even if something removes Chalabi from the scene.  If conditions are not too adverse, there is a reasonable chance that someone, or some people, will rise to the challenge of providing leadership. 

The great contribution that George Washington made to creating the most successful republic in history is that he neither wanted to be a King nor was he corrupt, unlike virtually every other leader in comparable positions before him.  Inevitably in Iraq, as in all such fluid situations, there will be strong tendencies for a single leader to find himself with enough power and support to move toward authoritarian control.  And there will be even more tendency for a leader to have easy opportunities to enrich himself.  In Ahmad Chalabi the Iraqis have a potential leader who will reject those temptations.  It is impossible to know whether, if Chalabi had to be replaced, his replacement would also adequately resist the temptations to power or excessive corruption that typically prevents the establishment of decent government.  If not it is easy to write scenarios in which the government comes to various kinds of bad ends.  But there is no reason to think that Chalabi is the only honest Iraqi potential political leader.

In summary, much of the cynicism about whether Iraqis can create a government of laws is based on quite imperfect analogies to supposedly similar situations, partly resulting from a lack of information about recent Iraqi history, or on prejudice against Arabs, or on a natural reluctance to seem naïvely optimistic.  No one can be confident that the INC will succeed, but a specific look at their record, and an analysis of the dynamics of the specific situation they will face, including the interests of various components of Iraqi society, gives reason to think that the odds will be in their favor.

[1] Constabulary is a kind of force with characteristics between those of police and those of military.  It is not trained for ordinary street police functions; nor is it intended to be capable of combat against military units.  It is a centralized force for exerting limited force against armed outlaws or mobs.  Sometimes constabulary are also trained for additional functions such as border control or some rural policing functions.

Max Singer is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and author of The REAL World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil (with Aaron Wildavsky)




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