Politics & Policy

Madison in Baghdad

The postwar blueprints.

In practically every discussion I hear about postwar Iraq (assuming there is a war, and that we win) these is a pervasive mood of pessimism. The antiwar crowd is particularly apocalyptic, predicting all manner of post-regime-change chaos. Looking at history, it is hard to blame them. Developing countries outside the Western Hemisphere have seldom coalesced into stable democracies. However, the West can largely fault itself. The dominant paradigm in post-colonial development has been the bureaucratic authoritarian model, which has sought to unify developing countries under strong central governments. The belief was that this would encourage efficiency and lead to greater stability, as well as establish channels for the smooth flow of aid to promote sustainable development. Underlying this was the influence of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs and the implicit development premise that the leading purpose of government was to satisfy the “physiological” and “safety” requirements of the people. This approach was also known by the more appropriate term, “socialism,” and it has had devastating effects on the developing world. Bureaucratism fed graft, corruption, and militarism, in part due to Cold War competition. Dictatorships, coups, and chaos were the obvious byproducts. “Self-actualization” was a long way off, except for the despots.

Is this the future for Iraq? It will be if the coalition repeats this mistake. (Let’s take as a given that we won’t spring for a “Saddam Jr.” alternative, which will almost certainly be offered by any surviving members of the clan Hussein.) Unfortunately, we are better at deposing dictators than in following up ensuring freedom. Haiti, case in point. Yet, I have always been optimistic about the potential of oppressed peoples to establish free societies once the source of their persecution was removed. One important first step would be recognizing a model of sustainable liberal democracy of proven durability and adaptability that could profitably be applied to Iraq — the U.S. Constitution. The premises and structure of our fundamental document could be a fruitful road map for Iraqi democratization, assuming those who build the postwar government return to its first principles.

The genius of our document is that it is based on a very unsentimental grasp of the human condition. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” This oft-quoted passage is also oft-forgotten when political theorists are called upon to devise constitutions. However, this insight is critical when dealing with a society with no history of freedom. The pursuit of power has a keener edge in societies accustomed to pervasive political violence. Stable government under these conditions is only possible when disparate groups consent to live together without resorting to old habits. As Madison says, “in forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The first has not been a difficulty in Iraq; control of the governed is a fine art. Obligating government self-control will be the challenge. This requires promoting the fundamental value of democracy, which is not bureaucratic efficiency, but compromise.

How to do it? “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” In order for a democratic Iraqi government to have any chance of long-term success, the constitutional schema must include strong structural mechanisms that achieve this self-limiting function. Twentieth century-style Industrial Age top-down bureaucratic models will only create the conditions for despotism to reappear as soon as the occupation forces leave. Iraq has a literate, educated society, which is a definite plus for democracy building. In addition, it is a largely secular society compared to others in the region. We can count on the Iraqi people to understand their self-interests and to act accordingly, but to harness this rational calculation the government structure must be erected in such a way that every group enjoys some degree of power, or at least competitive access to it.

Madison’s preferred guide to establishing stable interest-based government was the federal principle: distributing powers among levels of government to weaken the central government and thereby protect the citizens from each other. The coalition could erect a federal system in Iraq based on the existing 18 provinces. Each would have independently elected provincial governments with powers to tax, establish courts, and other prerogatives enjoyed by U.S. states. The provinces would be represented equally at the national level in a body modeled on the U.S. Senate. This would favor some provinces over others since population densities vary — for example, Al Anbar province has only six people per square kilometer. Then again, Montana has about six per square mile. Provincial sovereignty will also give regionally clustered minorities more national influence than they might otherwise have, and promote their sense of security and confidence in the new system by allowing self-rule within the limits set by the federal structure.

The Iraqi parliament would likewise be patterned on the U.S. House. Local district-based majority-vote representation, such as in the U.S. and Britain, would encourage the development of umbrella parties on the local and perhaps national level. It is hard to predict how many of these districts might be truly competitive of course, but if they can reach, say, 20 percent, Iraq will be doing much better than the United States. A unitary national parliamentary system with proportional representation would on the other hand be highly destabilizing; it would encourage the formation of radical parties based on small electoral percentages, and give no impetus to compromise. The resulting political divisions would make governance problematic, as well as give radical groups permanent national platforms for instigating anti-democratic activity. It is important to avoid Iraq becoming an academic experiment in radical democracy, which is an express-line to dictatorship.

Political parties will form naturally based on the interplay of local, provincial, and national interests. Iraqi ethnic diversity is actually a good guarantor of balance. The various ethnic groups — Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Arab Sunnis, and Arab Shiites — will find the best ways to seek both advantage and security under the system, and if power is balanced correctly this will facilitate the self-limiting dynamic. There is no reason to assume that the major ethnic groups will automatically form hostile unitary blocs. They have their own internal tribal and other rivalries — witness for example the divided Kurds. Economic and class differences will also play a role. If power is devolved to provincial and local levels to the greatest extent possible, this will promote corresponding intra-group competition. Alternatively, if the system centers all interests at the national level, it will reward those who seek dominant power, thus ensuring the formation of ethnic mega-blocs (particularly of the Shiite majority).

Of course the biggest national prize is oil revenue. The Iraqi economy is a petro-monoeconomy, and any group that can dominate the oil industry will effectively control the country. The regional distribution of oilfields is helpful, because they would not fall naturally under the control of a single tribe or province. Nevertheless, to remove temptation the Iraqi oil industry should be kept under international supervision until such time as it can be privatized or placed under localized control. In any case, this will only come about after the contracts have been negotiated to rebuild the wells and refineries after Saddam Hussein destroys them (or tries to).

The federal principle has had some notable successes besides the US. Germany’s federal constitution owes much to ours, and has endured better than its Weimar predecessor. Likewise the Japanese constitution. (Both were the products of “regime change.”) Canada has been conducting a federal experiment for many years, particularly with respect to Quebec. The 1994 South African interim constitution was a remarkable document built on realistic compromise, and contains many praiseworthy structural limitations on central power. Furthermore, it was adopted at a time when predictions of civil strife in South Africa were as alarmist as they are today concerning Iraq, and the document played an important role in preventing a political and social meltdown.

Naturally, structural constitutional limits are only a starting point in Iraqi democratization. Peacekeeping forces will be necessary to prevent or at least limit armed unrest. The U.N. should run the first few elections as an honest broker and facilitate party organization in an evenhanded way. The Iraqi armed forces will need to be de-Baathized, the Mukhabarat disbanded, and other organs of state power purged of authoritarian influences. Rights will need to be codified, such as freedom of the press, of assembly, and of religion (though a wall between mosque and state might be too much to hope for). Plus there are the big-ticket items like food distribution, health-care assistance, and even the developer’s panacea of rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. But without an early focus on systemic limits and balanced power, rights will simply be unsupported promises and development aid a means of looting good intentions.

When coalition forces enter Baghdad and begin distributing material assistance, they should also hand out copies of the Dar Al Faris Arabic translation of The Federalist Papers and other books from the Arabic Book Program. We should help the Iraqi people understand that for them the era of big government is over.

James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.


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