Why elections won't bring democracy to Iraq.

Military analysis.
Dec. 15 2005 5:28 PM

Elections Aren't Enough

Seeing Iraqis vote is wonderful, but you can't rush democracy.

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It would also be good to see a very high turnout among Sunnis. The vast majority of Sunnis didn't vote in last January's election, either by choice or out of fear that insurgents would kill them on their way to the polls. This time, the insurgents dropped their intimidation; the nationalists among them realized that the boycott was a colossal strategic error. A strong showing would have two effects: It would more clearly differentiate the homegrown Sunnis from the foreign terrorists; it would signal that they want to join the political system and would thus put great pressure on the Shiites to make key concessions (for instance, revising the constitution to allow the Sunnis more decision-making power and a greater share of the oil wealth).

Still, the election is at best the beginning—not the settlement—of Iraqi politics. When the new government takes office, all the "risk factors" that Mansfield and Snyder describe will come into play explicitly; they will define political disputes, and it will take great skill and determination for Iraqi's political leaders to fashion compromises.

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Beyond Iraq, Mansfield and Snyder's analysis raises profound doubts—as if enough hadn't already been kicked up—over President George W. Bush's declared policy of spreading democracy across the Middle East. The premise of this idea, laid out in Bush's second inaugural address, comes down to this: Democracies are peaceful; thus, turning hostile regimes into democratic states serves not just our moral ideals but our national-security interests.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice elaborated the point in an op-ed piece for the Dec. 11 Washington Post. "The fundamental character of regimes matters more today than the international distribution of power," she wrote. This, she added, is why America's new statecraft centers on the promotion of democracy everywhere. "Democracy is the only guarantee of lasting peace and security between states because it is the only guarantee of freedom and growth within states."

She might be right about democracy and peace, but if Mansfield and Snyder are right, the equation doesn't always apply to democratization. If "the fundamental character of regimes" really does mean more than the balance of power (a doubtful point, but let's stipulate it for now), then she should be very watchful about the character of democratizing regimes as well. Booting out a dictator and holding an election do not a democracy make. Mansfield and Snyder's lesson is that, depending on the character of the regime and the society that it reflects, democratic elections without democratic institutions might worsen the prospects for real democracy—and, if Rice's equations are valid, they won't do much for American security, either.