EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the eighth of a series first published in the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
The war in Iraq, it turned out, didn’t take as long as Lent. Ash Wednesday was March 5, the war began March 20 and was essentially over the week before Easter.
Already it seems that the prospects of the entire Middle East look very different. A high official in Iran just told the British press that it saddens him how many people in Iran have become openly pro-American, and are crying out to the Americans to come help them, too. It bothers him that the Iraqi people, too, welcomed the Americans, and that the Iraqi army dissolved almost on contact. Maybe, he suggested, the Islamic states should quickly become democracies, in order to deprive the Americans of their arguments!
Syria finds itself surrounded now by three democracies: Israel, Turkey, and the newest neophyte in democracy, Iraq.
We mustn’t get our hopes too high. Democracy is a long and difficult road, requiring many new lessons through experience and practice, counterintuitive ideas, and fresh habits. Built in to the practice of democracy is a rule derived from what Christians call “original sin”: Since every man sometimes sins, never trust any man with too much power. All powers must be divided, and set in check and balance to one another. The power of every office must be limited. Only limited government is safe.
It is not the Enlightenment, with its extravagant rationalism and optimism, that supplies the philosophy behind democracy, but St. Augustine, that total realist about the “City of Man.” Describing the cruelty, ambition, lust, envy, rivalry, pettiness, and lies that deform human reason, Augustine makes Machiavelli seem thin and superficial, a rationalist despite himself.
Europeans think Americans are naive and optimistic, but our nation was steeped from the first in Augustine’s realism. Europeans make fun of the motto on our dollars, “In God we Trust,” but they do not grasp its operational meaning: “We trust nobody else.” For everybody else, there are checks and balances.
The realism of Augustine will serve America well in dealing with the complexities and miseries of Iraq. That there are factions in Iraq, even violent factions, is no surprise. On the other hand, during the last ten years the Kurds have shown remarkable abilities to organize their own civil society, and to work together with effect, even where full love and trust are still absent.
Even the most extreme of the Shiites and Sunnis have seen horrific tortures under Saddam. They will not want to go backwards. They may shout and threaten at first, for the liberty to do so has been long denied them. But let us see how fast they cool down, once the practical work of rebuilding civil society engages them. The vast majority of Sunni and Shiites seem to be moderate, practical people, who want liberty and prosperity, not irrational fantasy.
Here follows three practical proposals for Iraq.
1. Religion. We will expect members of each ethnic and religious group in Iraq to be represented in future institutions of national government, and appropriate local governments.
At least one guideline has been announced with emphasis by Secretary Rumsfeld: There will be no theocratic Islamic government in Iraq.
That was an important, even crucial step. I believe two more guidelines should be announced publicly, and as soon as possible: Guarantees for the free exercise of religion on the part of every religious community. Recognition of the inalienable responsibility of every human creature to respond Yes or No to his or her Creator, as conscience directs; i.e., the right of religious liberty.
2. Oil. In the state of Alaska in the United States, a dividend from the profits of that state’s oil resources is paid every year to every taxpayer in the state. I believe a similar trust ought to be established in Iraq, so that every family in the nation receives annual payments from Iraq’s oil. That oil money should reach the people directly.
But the main hope of democracy in Iraq is its small entrepreneurs. Economic progress comes mostly from small entrepreneurs, opening up new shops, small manufactures, restaurants, bicycle shops, software companies, and all the rest of the complex economic activities of modern societies. It is small employer who hire most employees, and create most new jobs.
Small business is the heart of capitalist dynamism. In this, Iraqi have for centuries excelled. Their traditional strong talents in engineering and the sciences bode well for small high tech industries, too, under conditions of liberty and world trade.
3. Finances. Clear fiscal and monetary guidelines need to be established immediately, to foster growth and to stop inflation before it starts. An independent monetary board will be essential, to keep economic power over the currency out of the hands of government officials. The success of Ludwig Ehrhard in Germany after World War II should be emulated.
For the future peace of the Middle East, the success of a dynamic free economy in Iraq is extremely important, for with it rises as well the hopes of success in building democratic checks and balances. A rising tide lifts all boats.
When the idea of democracy shows its power to raise peoples up economically and to protect them from torture and repression, the prospects of a free and prosperous Palestine rise as well. In that context, the mutual accommodation of Palestine and Israel is far more likely of success than under current conditions of terror.
Many Europeans were wrong about the war. Euro-pessimism may prove wrong about the peace, as well.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.