As the Iraq war enters its sixth year, I thought it appropriate to post these two previously composed essays on nation building - Publius, April 26, 2008.
It is an oft repeated axiom that, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It would seem common sense that this would be true and yet history seems to repeat itself with alarming frequency. It certainly seems true that we are not a history conscious society with a subconscious belief that we have the ability to prevail over the obstacles that stymied our ancestors. Although this “can-do,” attitude can be a powerfully positive engine for ingenuity, inventiveness, and economic growth, it also makes us blind to pit-falls that history should teach us to recognize.
I find this most evident as I reflect on the war in Iraq. The lesson that history should teach us, that both critics and supporters of the Iraq war seem oblivious too, is that the forging of liberal democracies takes a long time. Setting aside the argument for invasion that was based on flawed intelligence regarding the external threat that Saddam’s regime represented, the President did state from the beginning a belief in a sort of reverse domino theory that a stable democracy in the Middle East would begin to transform the region. Whether or not that premise is true, or whether or not it should therefore be our role to create such democracies for other peoples, or whether or not it is even possible for a foreign power to create a democracy in another country by force are all debates for another day. My point here is that from the beginning, one of the President’s goals was the creation of a constitutional liberal democracy in Iraq. The administration argued that we would be greeted as liberators; that Iraq was a sophisticated nation, ready for self-government; that Iraqi oil would pay for reconstruction; and that the Iraqi people where ready to throw off the shackles of tyranny – they wanted our help to do it in 1991. In short, this would be relatively easy and cost little and the dividend, in terms of the reverse domino theory and our long-term national security, would be large. According to Bob Woodward in Bush at War, at a meeting at Camp David on September 15, 2001 to discuss our response to the September 11th attacks, Paul Wolfowitz argued against going after Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and in favour of invading Iraq in response to 9/11! His argument, rejected by the President, was not that there was compelling evidence of Iraqi involvement, but that Iraq would be easier to accompolish! He seemed cognizant of the difficulties that British and Russians had in the past in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, but completely ignorant of what it takes to build a liberal democracy from the ground up.
Critics of the war and events in Iraq also seem oblivious to the historical lessons of the challenges involved in establishing a liberal democracy. Two and a half years after the invasion, they seem astonished that it is taking so long and shocked about the level of violence in Iraq – which they conclude must be due to mismanagement. Yes, the administration sold this as being as painless as Desert Storm, but everyone believed it. They also make fatalistic statements about the inevitability of civil war, which will destroy the prospect of democracy. They worried that enough Sunni’s would vote against that new Constitution and reject it as if it would have been an insurmountable road block to not get the Constitution right on the first try. And they complain that the new Constitution doesn’t address all the issues of minority participation and protection or the role of Islam in government and law.
One need look no further than the United States to find evidence of the challenges involved in creating a liberal democracy. As we all know, the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 and after armed conflict was recognized as an independent nation with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. In truth, the U.S. really cannot be described as liberal democracy before women’s suffrage in the 1920’s. With racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in place, it could be argued that the U.S. was not truly a liberal democracy before the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. In other words, in the U.S. it was a process that took 150-200 years! In this context, the administration’s notion that such a process could be completed in Iraq during a George W. Bush presidency (even with two terms) seems silly. Furthermore, our first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was a disaster and in 1787 we scrapped the whole thing to write our current Constitution. And, as wonderful as our Constitution is and as well as it has served us for two centuries, it left one major issue unresolved – slavery. In the twilight of their lives, Jefferson wrote to John Adams that this would be an issue to be resolved by posterity. He was right. It was resolved on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Manassas, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Antietam; resolved in the flames of Atlanta and Richmond; resolved after a horrible, bloody, civil war that to this day claims more loss of American lives than any other conflict. Within our own history there is a rejected inadequate initial Constitution, a final Constitution that fails to address key issues, and a subsequent sectarian civil war… Such things may not be preventable in Iraq. Such things may be inevitable in Iraq. But, such things do not necessarily spell doom for the ultimate establishment of liberal democracy either. In truth, just like with the U.S., the true success or failure of today’s efforts in Iraq will not be known for decades.
Perhaps Canada is a better example for comparison with Iraq. The United States in 1787 was an essentially ethnically monolithic country. Sure there were some Dutch in New York, some Germans in Pennsylvania and some Scotch-Irish, but the vast majority of the population of the original thirteen states were English. Native Americans could easily be pushed, and were, into the vast expanse of wilderness to the west. On the other hand, Canada at the time of Confederation in 1867 consisted of several separate British colonies in what are now the maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland (which did not even join the confederation until much later); a British colony in British Columbia; an uneasy union of English Upper Canada (modern day Ontario) and French Lower Canada (modern day Quebec) and a vast expanse of midland prairies inhabited by some English, some French, Native Americans, and Metis – those of combined French and Indian ethnicity. In 1867, Canadian confederation had to stretch coast to coast, both to connect British Columbia with the rest of British North America and to secure the western prairie from the rapidly expanding United States. So, Metis, French, English, and Native American would need some sort of workable solution. But, in 2005, Iraq has something Canada didn’t have, a written Constitution. The closest thing Canada had to a written Constitution was the 1867 British North America Act that conferred self-governing dominion status to Canada. It re-affirmed commitments of the earlier 1774 Quebec Act uniting Upper and Lower Canada to the preservation of a distinct French society in Quebec but left language on what that constituted deliberately vague. In the early years of the Canadian confederation, this largely translated in the right to minority schools – that would be French speaking and Catholic- in all provinces. Issues of federalism between the federal government and provincial governments were also not clear in the act. Furthermore, there was no mechanism for amendment! Talk about unresolved issues! When granted more autonomy from London following World War I, Canadians were still at an impasse in deciding how to amend the British North America act, and the 1931 Statute of Westminster left amendment power in the hands of the British parliament. It wasn’t until 1982 that Canada passed an amendment process and adopted a Charter of Rights. Even in this, Quebec felt largely left out (special status was granted to Native Americans, but the, “distinct society,” of French Canada was not recognized) and in 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called a conference at Meech Lake to try to resolve some of these issues. The Meech Lake Accords were not ratified. Mulroney, who became quite unpopular as a result of recession, tax and trade policy, and acquiescence to the U.S., handed the office over to Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman Prime Minister. But, even the change in leadership could not prevent voters from taking out their frustrations on Mulroney’s Tory party and in the following election ousted the Tory majority. Not only did the Liberals have a majority, but the Tories were reduced to two seats in the House of Commons and weren’t even the opposition party following the 1993 elections. That distinction fell to the Bloc Quebecois – a Quebec separatist party whose stated objective is the end of the Canadian federal union! In the mid 1990’s a Quebec referendum on secession was narrowly defeated 51% to 49%. Yet despite these long standing ethnic divisions, Canada stands today, undeniably one of the world’s greatest, freest, and most prosperous liberal democracies. Can the Kurds, Sunni, and Shi’ite in Iraq achieve the success that English, French, and Native Americans have achieved in Canada? Only time will tell – in Canada it has been a process of over 100 years.
One would certainly expect more rapid change in this faster-paced information age. But even our more recent experience with nation building should underscore the point that successful liberal democracies aren’t made on the quick. It has been twenty years since civil war began in Lebanon and only now is peaceful democracy independent of Syria evident. It has been ten years since our involvement in the Balkans and only recently has ethnic cleansing given-way to resumed peaceful coexistence. It has been several decades of violence in Israel and only now does the Palestinian authority seem anything close to a representative governing body for a future Palestinian state. Our efforts in Haiti and Somalia have been even less successful.
There is another important historical lesson to be learned beyond the fact that establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq will be long-term commitment. That lesson is embedded in a key difference in starting point between the U.S. and Canada on one hand and Iraq on the other. Before the U.S. invasion, Iraq was a totalitarian dictatorship. Neither Canada in 1866 nor the American colonies in 1775 could be described this way. In fact, the Canadian transition to independent liberal democracy is largely a gradual legislative one. In the U.S., a “revolution,” was fought that was really nothing of the sort. The birth of the United States was a successful secession. The government of King George III was not toppled, but remained intact. In fact, American colonists were largely fighting for rights that were granted to English citizens in England and kept British common law as the basis for U.S. law and jurisprudence. In both the U.S. and Canada, there was a tradition of constitutional liberty that predated the establishment of democracy. Perhaps then France is a better example for comparison to Iraq. In 18th century France, the monarch was much more absolutist than his British counterpart. He was overthrown and executed as part of a bloody revolution. Then came democratic tyranny in the form of the Reign of Terror only to end in civil war and the establishment of an Emperor, who lead France into wars with her neighbours and then ultimately restoration of the Monarchy. To any observer in 1815, the French Revolution must have seemed an abysmal failure (and the American Revolution anything but a sure success), and yet France today is also a liberal democracy, forged over a long and bloody history with many mistakes and wrong turns in her past. Although provoked by a foreign power, the Iraqi situation now is similar, and equally precarious, to France in 1789. A totalitarian regime has been toppled and is to be replaced by democracy.
The French example underscores the historical lesson in all this that is most important with respect to Iraq and has been entirely unlearned by policy-makers. The French experience demonstrates that democracy is not the starting point for liberty. There is nothing about democracy that intrinsically guarantees or protects liberty. In his book, The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria describes the democratic usurpation of power in Venezuela between 1998 when Hector Chavez was elected president and 2002. Chavez proposed a referendum that would create a unicameral “Constituent Assembly,” that was essentially answerable to the president and to which the judiciary would be answerable. This would replace the previous bicameral legislature and independent judiciary. The referendum passed with 91% of the vote. A new constitution, based on this referendum passed in 1999 with 71% of the vote and during the late 1990’s Chavez approval rating never fell below 65%. Venezuela is a democracy, but now clearly an autocratic one. Putin’s Russia is another example of a democracy almost as autocratic as the previous communist regime. And, it should be remembered that at least initially, National Socialists gained seats, power, and influence in Germany’s Wiemar Republic through democratic means. In his second treatise of government, John Locke wrote:
Absolute Arbitrary Power, or Governing without settled standing Laws, can neither of them consist with the ends of Society and Government which men would not quit the freedom of the State of Nature for…were it not to preserve their Lives, Liberties, and Fortunes; and by stated Rules of Right and Property to secure their Peace and Quiet. It cannot be supposed that they should intend…to give to any one, or more, an absolute Arbitrary Power over their Persons and Estates… (Ch. XI, paragraph 137).
In other words, to protect individual liberty, the authority of government must be limited, not arbitrary. It makes little difference whether the wielder of arbitrary power is an individual or the masses.
What guarantees liberty is a constitutional rule of law. In essence, this is a compact, written or implied, between a government and its citizens that guarantees the rights of individuals and, more importantly, limits the power and authority of government. This includes societal institutions that protect liberty and check governmental authority. Mechanisms include separated powers in government (Executive, Judicial, Legislative) with independence among the branches, as well as independence of Church and State and private property rights that allow for the concentration of wealth (and therefore power and influence) in a private sector and gives citizens the ability manage their own resources and map their own destiny. The authority of the private sector and of an independent Church also provides a counter-weight to governmental power, above and beyond its necessary internal checks and balances. These institutional limits on government were certainly part of the 18th century (except for the independent Church, a problem quickly rectified in the new United States) British tradition that Canada and the U.S. inherited. And they were present in absence of democracy, but in the context of constitutionally limited monarchy. The U.S. framers codified these concepts in the U.S. Constitution, but it was this basis of law and this acceptance of governmental limitation that made liberal self-government possible. Eastern Europe again provides illustrative examples. The most successful eastern bloc countries are those that had liberal traditions and institutions prior to World War II – Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. By contrast, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Rumania and most former Soviet Republics have struggled with the transition to democracy. At the beginning of the year, when I expressed my optimism for liberal democracy in Ukraine, it was based on two things: the peaceful nature of the Orange revolution and the independence asserted by the Ukrainian judiciary. This suggested to me a people ready to govern themselves and establishing institutions, like an independent judiciary, to protect their liberty (sadly, I heard recently that the Yushenko government in the Ukraine has been more interested in settling old scores than in governing for the future). Democracy isn’t the first step toward liberty, it is the last. It is the reward of a free society ready to govern itself.
Our policy toward Iraq and the critics of it are largely ignorant of history. The assumptions behind the President’s strategy ignore the long and difficult process every successful democracy has had to endure to establish itself and suggest that somehow, in Iraq, this can be a short-term commitment. His critics largely argue, not that this can’t be done quickly (although a few have made that case), but that it isn’t being done quickly enough. As if it were possible to move quickly toward liberal democracy in Iraq if only we had better policy or strategy. Most chillingly, all sides have made the assumption that democracy is the first step to liberty, not the last. All sides assume elections are of paramount importance, not security, stability, or civic institutions. Occasionally a politician or pundit will comment that democracy in Iraq could mean Shi’ite theocracy, but still no one acknowledges that perhaps democracy isn’t the appropriate first step. An unlearned lesson, despite centuries of examples of tyrannical democracies that have disintegrated.
Before I will close, I will offer one last example of history repeating itself. That is the position of the U.S. in the world at the opening of the 21st century. It is almost identical to the position of Great Britain in the world at the opening of the 20th. A lone super-power with both economic and military influence around the globe. A power with unquestioned naval (and now air) superiority. A power with military presence spread around the globe and in occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully this un-historically conscious society can learn enough from the British example to end our hegemony, when the time comes, by adjusting to a smaller role on the world stage while retaining our liberty, peace, and prosperity at home and thereby avoid the fate of ancient Rome.