Five years after the removal of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, there are few signs of the hoped-for "democratisation". Nevertheless, there is still need for a Western policy of promoting democracy, says Loay Mudhoon
Five years ago, the people of Iraq celebrated their violent liberation from Saddam Hussein's brutal one-man dictatorship. The jubilant Iraqis had every reason to do so, as the ex-dictator's refusal to comply with the UN Security Council's resolutions and the major sanctions which resulted were the final straw that plunged Iraq's population into abject poverty.
There was much relief the world over that the USA's speedy victory had avoided a long drawn-out war in Iraq. But these hopes were castles built on sand – in the very first weeks after capturing Baghdad, the occupying troops were confronted with chaos and anarchy as a result of the ensuing power vacuum, for which they were insufficiently prepared, if at all.
The terror has escalated almost uninterrupted since August 2003, taking on new forms and has been increasingly targeting American troops, international players and Iraqi civilians involved in the reconstruction process. The security situation has admittedly improved since the new US strategy of January 2007. But there is no sign of long-term stability on the horizon, as the sustained political deadlock still has Iraq in its stranglehold.
Democracy as a pretext
The Iraq war was waged on the basis of neo-conservative plans for a "revolutionary democratisation" of the Middle East, as we now know. The plans envisaged a kind of "democracy domino effect" – starting in Iraq, democracy was supposed to roll out over the other Arab states under despotic or authoritarian rule and reach Iran – ensuring lasting political stability in the crisis-ridden region.
It was not only Iraq, an artificially constructed state with no national cohesion or inner homogeneity but with highly problematic religious, cultural and ethnic divides, which soon proved to be a highly unsuitable territory for this experiment in democracy.
And there were considerable doubts as to the credibility of the mission for democracy even before the war. There was no shaking the impression that it was only to serve as a pretext for going to war, a controversial move in terms of international law – especially once all the other reasons had proved to be false.
Seeds of democracy
It is certainly legitimate to criticise the naïve nature of these neo-con plans, especially their false hypotheses and misleading parallels. There is no longer any doubt that the US hypothesis of the "liberation of Iraq" and the misleading parallels with post-war Germany had a decisive influence on the planning of the Iraqi invasion and the post-war system and led to a hesitant, superficial and contradictory occupation policy on the part of the US administration.
But there is one thing one cannot accuse the American neo-cons of, despite all this justified criticism – that their analysis of the underlying problems and the notorious deadlock in the Near and Middle East is wrong. Quite the opposite: there is no denying that 60 years of realpolitik have kept these authoritarian regimes alive.
For the first time, calls for far-reaching reforms towards democracy and the rule of law coming out of the region itself were officially heard in Washington; it even seemed for a time as if parts of the US decision-making elites were cautiously distancing themselves from the previously dominant policy of promoting stability at all costs.
And in fact, in mid-March 2005 it looked like it just might work, and as if Bush's domino theory was a realistic option – Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" forced the pro-Syrian government in Beirut to step down. And in Egypt, several candidates vied for election against the incumbent president Husni Mubarak for the first time on 7 September 2005.
But the hope for democracy in the region failed in the Sunni triangle in post-war Iraq. The tougher the situation became for the Americans in post-war Iraq, the more they came to fear instability. The regional players recognised the difficult situation the USA was in, growing more confident and finding it easy to reject calls for reform from outside.
Nevertheless, the American neo-cons did succeed in putting democracy on the political agenda in the Arab region, and an inner-Arab culture of debate with a new quality and intensity began to be established.
Driven by failure in Iraq and the US election timetable, the US administration has now returned to its old realpolitik. But this cannot be the lesson to be learned from post-war Iraq. The real lesson should be that the transfer from dictatorship to democracy is a long and difficult process that requires a sense of realism. Which makes it all the more important to achieve a consensus in the West on the methods of promoting democracy – especially as quick successes in democratisation are likely to remain unrealistic, as European experience has clearly demonstrated.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire