Seven new ideas for a democratic Iraq.

The best new ideas for rebuilding a nation.
April 25 2003 10:47 AM

Democracy—Faster, Better, Smarter

The seven best new ideas for introducing representative government to Iraq.

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Journal of Democracy Editor Marc Plattner, one of the leaders in this field, says that in addition to an independent judiciary—always at the top of the list—two sorts of institutions are proving particularly effective. Independent electoral commissions set election rules, monitor fraud, and give new parties a chance to compete fairly. Mexico's commission, says Plattner, was essential in that nation's recent transition to genuine multiparty democracy. In Thailand and elsewhere, independent anti-corruption commissions publicize and punish graft, bribery, and other sleaziness by elected officials. In nations where leaders have traditionally raided the state without consequence, such commissions restore faith in government. They also teach elected officials that their job is public service, not profiteering.

4. Reverse the diaspora. Civil war, dictatorship, and economic catastrophe drive away the best citizens of any country—especially the free-thinking souls that a vibrant democracy needs. As several readers—notably Steve Carter—emphasized to me, diaspora Iraqis are exactly the folks who can accelerate the rebuilding. They marry native knowledge with the first-world expertise needed to build a successful new government. They can set up central banks, build public health networks, start a civil service, teach policing, and write good laws.

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But why would they leave their new wealth and opportunity for the laughable salaries and wretched working conditions of a postwar Iraqi government? George Soros' Open Society Institute and other organizations hit on the clever notion of subsidizing diaspora folks to go back home. The returnees get enough extra cash to soften their sacrifice. They don't necessarily stay forever, just long enough to kick-start good government.

5. Use new technology and media to instill the habits of democracy. Democracy is a learned behavior. The experiences of the former Soviet Union and Cambodia are evidence that democracy stumbles if citizens don't know how to act like citizens. In a totalitarian state, people are trained to shut up and avoid trouble. They don't understand the new behavior that democracy demands. They even fear it. This is a disaster since democracy can't flourish with a timid citizenry.

Iraqis can't learn these habits overnight, but new technology and media can help speed up the process. As National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and others point out, the Internet is a superb tool for bringing people together and prompting them to organize. E-mail and the Web help far-flung people ally over shared religious or political or economic interests—sometimes for ill, as with al-Qaida, but often for good. In Kosovo, for example, an NGO has posted an online training course for political activists, a free guide for anyone who is trying to figure out how to start a political party.

The Internet—an endless bazaar of clashing ideas—also demonstrates the virtues of free speech to people who don't know them, says Sheryl Brown, who co-directs the Virtual Diplomacy Initiative at U.S. Institute of Peace. (A number of readers, in fact, have suggested scattering Internet kiosks across Iraq to seed free speech.)

Independent journalists can also encourage democratic habits, argues University of Colorado professor Roland Paris, author of the forthcoming AtWar's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. Iraqi media have been a boot-licking tool of the Saddam state. The blossoming of new, irreverent media may show Iraqis that public dispute is safe—a necessary starting point for political jockeying.

A related idea: According an article in last week's Washington Post, USAID just gave an $8 million contract to a North Carolina firm called RTI to organize meetings in Iraq that will help communities decide what kind of local government they want. The purpose is not simply to design a local government but also to show Iraqis the virtues of participation, debate, and consensus-building.

6. Let the United Nations organize the political process. Granted, the United Nations has ineptly handled most of its rebuilding missions. It should not be trusted to impose order in Iraq or restore the economy. The United States should boss these matters.

But one recent moral of nation-building is that a puppet democracy may be worse than no democracy. An Iraqi democratic leader who's perceived as an American tool will be challenged, delegitimized, emasculated, and probably assassinated. A political process under U.N. auspices would possess a legitimacy that a U.S. process would not, says Stephen Stedman, acting co-director of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. The United States can (and should) manipulate the process behind the scenes, but it needs the United Nations' stamp to make the result authoritative. Afghan President Hamid Karzai "has escaped the label of being an American puppet" because the United Nations ran the process that selected him, says Stedman. "Whatever problems Karzai may have, he is still seen as being legitimate internally."

7. When you finally do hold elections, bring in international observers. International election observers have been around for only 20 years, but they have been a surprising buttress for democratization. Observing elections doesn't prevent cheating and certainly doesn't make people vote for better candidates, but it does help ensure that a ruthless ruling party doesn't neuter the opposition. Observers give candidates in a new democracy incentive to play by the rules. Election observation helped ratify real democracy in the Philippines and in much of Africa by improving polls enough that citizens and the rest of the world accepted the results.