Can Iraq Become a Liberal Democracy?

And, Will American Remain One? A Review of Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom


Friday, June 13, 2003

Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton & Co. 2003)

Such is the rapidly changing state of political affairs at home and abroad, that by the time certain books reach the bookstores they are already in need of updates. The recently published examination of the future of democracy, The Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria - an editor at Newsweek International - is no exception.

Though Zakaria's work already could use an afterword, it is far from untimely. The Future of Freedom informs the debate about the future of democracy in regions in which the Bush administration is intent on bringing about "regime change." The book also offers some insight into what has happened to democracy at home since September 11.

Zakaria's Theory of "Illiberal Democracy"

Zakaria defines a "democracy" simply as a government where the governed elect their officials. A "liberal" democracy is one in which the governed are also protected from the government through possession of individual freedoms or civil liberties, most often set out in constitutions. An "illiberal" democracy is a country in which people have the right to vote, but the governments they elect are not committed to freedom.

For an example, one need look no further than Iraq, which "elected" Saddam Hussein. Zakaria traces the tortuous path of democracy in the elected autocratic regimes that have controlled Russia, Central Asia, and Latin America in the 20th Century - powerful centralized governments, often headed by dictators.

Democracies without civil liberties are not worth much, Zakaria seems to say.

Of all the countries in the Arab world, Zakaria chooses Egypt as the one most ripe for democratization. It is, he says, the intellectual soul of the Arab world. But there is another candidate, he says--Iraq. And, he argues, democracy in Iraq might well lead to more democracy in other countries in the region, as well:

Before it became a playpen for Saddam's megalomania, Iraq was one of the most advanced, literate, and secular countries of the region. It has oil, but, more important, water.... Were the United States to dislodge Saddam and--far more important--engage in a serious, long-term project of nation-building, Iraq could well become the first major Arab country to combine Arab culture with economic dynamism, religious tolerance, liberal politics, and a modern outlook on the world. And success is infectious.

Zakaria's comments presaged current events. While Saddam has been toppled, the nation-building process continues to loom large in importance on the world stage. Unfortunately, the commitment to rebuilding is suffering from bureaucratic bungling and broken promises to the Iraqi people. And segments of the Iraqi population are rebelling against American occupation.

If the Bush Administration takes Zakaria's advice, it will not push for quick elections. Rather, it will focus on establishing constitutional liberalism - in aiding the Iraqis in building an enforceable constitution that reins in government's power and protects basic civil liberties. It is hard to imagine this scenario when the people are under the control of American troops.

Interestingly, the Bush Administration seems to be realizing that, as Zakaria warns, an election may not result in liberal democracy. Rather, it could easily result in theocracy, or a ruling cabal defined largely by ethnicity, instead.

Accordingly, the Administration has backed away from its promises to the Iraqis that they will choose their government. If the reason is to concentrate on constitution-building first, fine and good. But simply installing an unelected, Administration-backed "puppet" leadership - as it looks more and more likely might occur - would moot the illiberal versus liberal democracy question entirely. In that instance, Iraq would, of course, be no democracy at all. This "solution" would be unacceptable and antithetical to the reasons given for taking over the country in the first place.

Is America Truly Still A Liberal Democracy? Might It Become a One-Party Democracy?

Ironically, as America purports to attempt to spread liberal democracy abroad, it has for years - and most intensely, over the last two years, been threatening liberal democracy at home.

Inroads into civil liberties began at least as early as 1996, with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which I discussed in a previous review). Since 9/11, they have only intensified. If America is the lodestar by which other countries judge freedom, then the future of freedom shines less brightly than it did two years ago.

Our greatest problem is that we are becoming increasingly "illiberal," in Zakaria's sense - the sense of being antagonistic to individual liberties. Worse, our Constitution is facing an attack that is perhaps the strongest in modern history.

Meanwhile, yet another cause for concern is that we now have what is virtually a one-party democracy, with Republican control of the Executive and Legislative branches and, if the Administration has its way, increasing power in the Judicial branch as well. Currently, the Democratic party is virtually powerless, except when, as in the case of the cloture vote that can defeat a filibuster, supermajorities are required.

Zakaria discusses the perils of the one-party democracy in analyzing Nehru's India. Those who believe the U.S. could never truly become such a democracy, would do well to consider the strategies of Bush's influential political advisor, Karl Rove, as reported by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker.

According to Lemann, Rove has a grand design to create a Republican majority that would last for at least one generation. Says Rove, "I think we're at a point where the two major parties have sort of exhausted their governing agendas....Somebody will come along and figure out a new governing scheme...." And, says Lemann, "Karl Rover clearly wants to be that somebody...." If Rove is as successful as he was in masterminding the 2002 mid-term elections, that "new governing scheme" - a one party democracy, it appears - may soon become a reality. But that democracy won't be liberal--it will stifle, not support, individual freedoms.

In sum, The Future of Freedom excels as a provocative analysis of Zakaria's thesis and a prescient vision of events at home and abroad that transpired after the book went to press. Ultimately, its bears an ironic message: if we continue to assault American liberties in the name of security, while at the same time failing to help create a liberal democracy in Iraq rooted in freedom, we will have doubly erred.

Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and teaches law and psychology. She writes about civil liberties and psycholegal issues and is working on a book about the Bush Administration's war on civil liberties.

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