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Building Democracy in Iraq

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So the Bush administration is going to bring democracy to Iraq. Leaving aside the dubious connection between democracy and freedom (it wasnt Operation Iraqi Democracy), theres a rather large potential problem in realizing that ambition: what if the Iraqis want to do something contrary to the administrations wishes?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already declared that the U.S. government opposes a theocracy in Iraq. But what if advocates of theocracy are voted into office in the first election?

In seeking an answer, we can look to the U.S. governments and the United Nationss recent experiment in nation-building: Bosnia. In 1995 the Unites States and the UN began their mission to bring democracy to the Balkan country, a state comprising Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. Those groups had been fighting with one another until the Dayton Agreement quelled the conflict. Since then, attempts to turn Bosnia into a peaceful pluralistic society with a Western-style government have floundered. The three ethnic groups dominate their own regions and maintain nationalist parties. The fact is, Bosnias rival ethnic groups do not want to live with each other or fear that they cannot, writes William Ruger of the Cato Institute. The peacekeepers could do little more than mitigate the effects of the deep-seated ethnic animosity and suspicion that are rampant throughout Bosnia.

What about democracy? Ruger writes, The [UN] Office of the High Representative is giving the Bosnians a good lesson in colonial rule rather than democracy. It regularly flouts democratic norms, rules by decree, shows utter disrespect for the electoral process, and violates any semblance of media freedom. The former high representative boasted of powers that would make a 19th-century viceroy envious.

The UN administration ousted an elected president of the Bosnia Serb republic and lesser officials there and in the Muslim-Croat federation. Nationalist candidates were removed from ballots when they were not acceptable to the nation-builders. As two close observers of Bosnia, Gary Dempsey and Aaron Lukas, have written, Apparently, Western-style democracy is only applicable when voters pick the right candidates.

International affairs expert Ted Carpenter added, Even the voter registration lists have been manipulated to increase the likelihood of the results desired by the intervening powers…. The High Representative has imposed his choice for Bosnias currency, flag, national anthem and auto license plates.

At the end of last year the UN Mission left Bosnia and was replaced by the European Union Police Mission. Thus after eight years, Bosnia does not stand on its own.

This doesnt bode well for Iraq, which has no recent experience with limited government. It is also made up of three large groups, along with smaller ones. The majority Shiites have been shut out of power since the country was cobbled together by the British after World War I. The Sunnis, Saddam Husseins group, have dominated. The third group, the Kurds, have long wanted independence from the Iraqi Arabs but have been suppressed along with the Shiites. The Bush administration nevertheless favors a unified Iraq. This sets the stage for Bosnian-type problems.

There is friction already. Muslims of both major sects are calling on the U.S. government to leave Iraq, even as they celebrate the demise of Saddam Husseins regime. And Kurds are clearing Arabs from land in the north. The Iraqi exile whom the Bush administration supports for a key role in the transition to a new government, Ahmed Chalabi, is opposed by Iraqis who remained in their country for the duration of the Hussein years. The 57-year-old Chalabi, a wealthy Shia Muslim, left Iraq when he was 11. He was convicted of fraud in Jordan and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Meanwhile the administration is refusing to recognize a former exile, Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, who claims hes been elected mayor of Baghdad by representatives of a cross section of the city.

President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and the American overseer Jay Garner insist they have no intention of staying in Iraq any longer than necessary. That has a nice objective ring to it, but what does it mean?

Candidate George W. Bush eschewed nation-building for a more humble foreign policy. He may find himself wishing he had stuck with that position.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.