Delay democracy in Iraq

Posted: May 03, 2003 12:00 AM

I think the last thing Iraq needs is democracy.

I guess that sounds funny because I've been pounding my shoe on the table in favor of democratizing Iraq for a couple years now. So when I say that the last thing Iraq needs is democracy, I don't mean it shouldn't have it, I mean elections should be the last on a long list of priorities for Iraq.

Without law, order and civil society, democracy is mobocracy.

In the United States we've fetishized democracy to the point where it means essentially "all good things." If something is bad, it must be undemocratic.

But this sentiment runs completely counter to the intent of the US Constitution. The founders were just as afraid of too much democracy -the tyranny of the majority -as they were of too little -the tyranny of the minority.

The Bill of Rights and the Constitution were designed to limit and constrain the excesses of democracy. This is why the federal judiciary is the least democratic branch of government, with lifetime appointments for judges largely immune from congressional meddling. (This may also explain why the judiciary is the most respected branch of our government according to polls.)

In principle, the Constitution protects my individual rights against the entire country. If everyone voted to say Jonah Goldberg had no right to free speech, the Supreme Court would tell the whole country to stuff it.

Of course, in practice, this principle has been folded, spindled and mutilated from time to time over the last two centuries. But that's a subject for another column.

The point is that the most important guarantees for freedom do not come from the ballot box; instead, they come from a series of laws and customs that respect individual rights. In a pure democracy, 51 percent of the people can vote to do whatever they want to 49 percent of the people -which is one of the reasons why, even if slaves had had the right to vote in, say, 1825, there'd still have been slavery in the South.

Anyway, this is a point sorely misunderstood in Iraq and in America. Right now Shiite militants -many backed by Iran -are clamoring for immediate elections because they think democracy is simply a means of grabbing power by lever-pulling or ballot-casting.

The Shiite clerics have figured out that since they comprise 60 percent of the population, they should win an election and then have the right to impose a theocratic regime on 100 percent of the country. This would be an Arab version of "one man, one vote, one time" -the saying that describes how so many African "democrats" become lifetime dictators the moment they're elected.

The relative popularity of the Shiite clerics demonstrates another thing that is lacking in Iraq: a real civil society. A layman's definition of civil society is all that gunk between the state and the individual: community groups, churches, mosques, softball leagues, professional and trade associations, neighborhood councils, gardening clubs, women's groups, etc.

British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke called these sorts of things the "little platoons" that make a society healthy. They fill the so-called public square and solve most of the problems of everyday life that are not the government's business.

In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the public square was a corrupt and dangerous place. Schools were ordered to teach propaganda about Saddam Hussein first, and the three R's a distant second. Children whose parents wouldn't let them join the Baathist Party were thrown into a pee-wee gulag, sometimes for years. Homes were secretly bugged; if you laughed at a joke about Saddam, you were pulled from your family and tortured. Even the joy of sports was removed. Saddam Hussein's son had members of the state soccer team beaten for losing a match.

Under Saddam, the Shiite clergy were brutalized precisely because they were an alternative source of moral authority to the Baath Party. Once the Baath regime fell, party bureaucrats who prevented civil society from functioning lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Saddam had sanitized the public square of everything but his own statues. When those statues fell, the religious Shiite zealots not only gained legitimacy, they lost all competition. Sure, they could be elected into office today, but that would amount to trading one dictatorship for another.

The trick for the United States is to stay in Iraq not only long enough to build up the laws, courts and markets necessary for a successful society, but long enough for the society itself to regenerate.

This means giving people time to see themselves not merely as Shia or Sunni, but as businessmen and soccer fans and a million other things that make people appreciate liberty. These little platoons are the real antibodies against the disease of tyranny, because they prevent any one institution -religion and state included -from commanding the total loyalty of the people.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with having religion represented in the long-sanitized public square. But it will only be time to vote when that square is filled with a crowd and the clerics are one voice among many.