|EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the fifth of a series first published in the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. The first can be read here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.|
Dear Caro Rinaldo,
You challenged me, Rinaldo, by writing that democracies cannot be established by guns. But I don’t believe you. I saw with my own eyes that between 1939 and 1945 democracies were certainly established at the point of guns. Over my head every week, wing after wing of American aircraft were being flown from American factories to points overseas for the war in Europe. In the train yard downtown (in my home city in Pennsylvania) the ruins of German, British, and American tanks carted back from the sands of North Africa rested on flat cars, until they were melted down in the local steel mills to be recast for new uses.
I didn’t live in Italy under bombardment, but as a boy I followed eagerly the bloody progress of our armies in Italy, and then later in France, on a Continent in which no democracies were allowed to exist (except in some neutral states). And then all over Europe democracies came to life.
Many democracies in this world today came into existence through war.
It is not true that “War is never a solution.” It is always a kind of human failure, for surely there are more humane methods than war. But some tyrants cannot be vanquished by humane methods. Human wickedness (as St. Augustine taught) runs deeper than reason or logic or even kindness.
In one of our peace demonstrations in San Francisco this year, young counter-demonstrators carried a most creative sign: “EXCEPT FOR SLAVERY AND FASCISM,” it read: “WAR HAS NEVER BEEN A SOLUTION.”
The challenge you should have raised, Rinaldo, is this: How can a democracy be built in an Arab country, which has little tradition of democracy and much history of tribal feuds and tyrannical overlords?
There are four features of Iraq that are unusually favorable to a better politics than in the past. First is the great suffering of almost all parties under a sadistic torturer, who opened his own career in the Baath party by murdering 500 of that party’s top leaders, his potential rivals. Iraqis know that they must turn in a new and more cooperative direction.
Second is that Iraqi are an unusually literate and well-educated people, perhaps the most advanced in those respects than any other Arab people in the region. They are proud of having been the cradle of civilization, and the home of Hammurabi’s great Code of Law.
Third is their oil wealth, guaranteeing to the nation the economic wherewithal to accomplish many good ends. Behind that, there are entrepreneurial habits and traditions.
Fourth is the comparative moderation of their religious feelings, and a kind of mutual tolerance nurtured by the hardships each of Iraq’s minorities has undergone under Saddam.
Nobody I know expects the course of democracy to be smooth in Iraq. It is not so smooth in the United States, or in Italy, or anywhere else. Democracy is a poor form of government, it’s just that all the others are worse, as Winston Churchill once said.
But at the very least the new Iraq must at least have a free press, and the right of free association among peoples, and the right to religious liberty and a pluralism in which the rights of all those who differ in religion will be respected. Even if this much is all that is possible in the short run, it will represent a huge improvement over the recent past.
Maybe in addition the new Iraq will have elections, both national and local, so that the terms of office of their leaders will be limited, and so that on a regular basis the worst of them can be voted out. (Throwing the rascals out is the best and most reliable feature of democracy.)
Yet elections are not a panacea. Much depends on which people decide to seek office, and how diligent the citizens are in exercising their sovereignty. It is the citizens who are sovereigns, not the political leaders, who merely work for the citizenry, like hired hands to be publicly interviewed, hired, and then in due time dismissed.
Rival parties must be allowed to grow in Iraq, free to argue for their own ideas and to recruit volunteers to join with them in their aspirations and programs. Parties need to learn to treat each other with democratic civility, in peaceful debate. They must all learn how to act the part of a “loyal opposition,” being willing for the sake of the common good and common progress to argue for rival positions until a decision is taken by vote, and then to work, losers and winners together, to achieve at least a few steps of modest progress for the country as a whole.
No one party wins all the time. No one party wins everything it would like. Compromise for the sake of small steps forward is a necessary practice for all.
These are hard habits to learn: civility, fair debate, open competition, compromise, loyal opposition, small steps forward for the sake of the common good.
Democracy is a long school. It can only be learned by practicing it, and studying it, and learning how to do it better.
No matter how hard democracy is, its citizens only have to think back to the torture chambers hundreds of thousands of them had to endure under dictatorship.
It is not necessary for new democracies to succeed in everything at once. Just the freedom to again speak one’s mind, and to work to win others to one’s point of view, and to build political parties around noble ideals and practical programs, infuses many with the energy to keep advancing forward, until the habits and institutions of democracy slowly take root and mature.
It would be racist to think that humans in other regions can make democracy work, but not Arabs. And if any Arab country has the best chance to succeed first, it is Iraq. There even a flawed democracy would be less bloody and more humane than the last 30 years under the barbarously cruel Saddam Hussein, who studied closely the political methods of Stalin and Hitler.
No, Rinaldo, we should have modest expectations and practice patience. Yet human nature itself instructs human beings everywhere that they themselves must take responsibility for their own political destiny — seek the rule of law, respect the same rights in others they know must be respected in themselves, and ready their nation for self-government. Anything less may be worthy of cattle or sheep, but not of free and responsible women and men.
— 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.