In a March 18 speech at the Reagan Presidential Library, Vice President Dick Cheney hailed the adoption of a proto-constitution–”a new fundamental law”–by the Iraqi Governing Council. Describing it as “an essential step toward building a free constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East,” he added that this “great work” is “part of a forward strategy of freedom that we are pursuing throughout the greater Middle East. By helping nations to build the institutions of freedom, and turning the energies of men and women away from violence, we not only make that region more peaceful, we add to the security of our own region.”
The “forward strategy” assumes our capacity to fashion democracy in remote countries with no historic roots therein. The “forward strategy” further assumes that certain cognitive changes will result from such an effort. Both assumptions are controversial.
Can the United States really “help nations build the institutions of freedom,” or is such a strategy impossible where such institutions are historically lacking? And what of the consequences? Will the cultivation of democracy actually “turn the energies of men and women away from violence”?
Oxford Research International has recently released the first sizeable survey of Iraqi public opinion–a weighted study of 2,652 subjects interviewed in 16 cities, including all major geographic, ethnic, and religious groups.
A careful reading of the results indicate that at the one-year point of Iraq’s postwar history, the answer to both questions trends “Yes.”
When asked their top priority for the next twelve months, Iraqis overwhelmingly list “regaining public security.” But “holding elections for a national government ranks” a surprising second, above such options as “rebuilding the infrastructure,” “reviving the economy,” and “ensuring that religious ideals are followed.”
The Oxford survey used several methodologies to measure Iraqi attitudes toward democracy. One approach was open-ended. A survey question set the following premise: “People have different ideas about what Iraq needs at this time. How about you? How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”
The respondents were then presented with a wide array of governmental options in terms of “agree strongly,” “somewhat agree,” “somewhat disagree,” and “disagree strongly.”
“An Iraqi democracy” won both the highest percent of strong agreement–72.2 percent–and the highest degree of general agreement–85.9 percent. “An Iraqi democracy” was more popular than “a strong leader” (66.5 percent strong agreement), “experts and/or managers” (34.4 percent), “military leaders” (11.1 percent), “religious leaders” (27.4 percent), “a UN transition government” (15.1 percent), “the Coalition Provisional Authority” (9.7 percent), and “the Iraqi Governing Council” (16.2 percent).
Looking at governmental preference from the opposite angle–that of disapproval–8.7 percent disagreed with the need for an “Iraqi democracy,” compared to 14.1 percent against “a strong leader,” and 40.2 percent against a government of “religious leaders.”
Obviously, these numbers don’t add up. How can 66.5 percent want a strong leader while 72.2 percent want an Iraqi democracy?
The Oxford study further disaggregated these numbers. Thus, Question 17 states: “There can be differences between the way a government is set up in a country, called a political system, and the type of people who run that system, called ‘actors.’ From the six options I am going to read to you, please choose one system and one type of actor.”
So queried, 48.5 percent of Iraqis preferred democracy as their political system; 27.5 percent, a strong leader; and 20.5 percent an Islamic state. The preference of “type” of people running the system was similar: 55.3 percent chose democrats; 27.3 percent, a strong leader; and 13.7 percent religious politicians.
Cross-referencing the two groups, one finds that many Iraqis who “want” religious leadership, or “strong leadership,” actually prefer the democratic process. In fact, 61.5 percent of respondents prefer democracy–i.e., democratic actors electing democratic politicians (41.7 percent), religious politicians (7.3 percent), or a strong leader (12.5 percent). Only 18.8 percent preferred a totalitarian state (a strong leader establishing himself). Only 11.4 percent preferred an Islamic state–religious politicians establishing an Islamic state.
Iraqis were queried as to the most important component of democracy. Thirty percent had no opinion, but among the 70 percent who did, their expectations were modest. Forty-nine percent listed “Issues of freedom as the principal component of democracy.” At eleven percent, “fair elections” was the second most common response. Only one percent identified democracy principally with “equality.” Half that amount identified democracy with “jobs.” Our Founding Fathers would have been proud!
Deep inhibitions remain regarding political participation. Three-quarters of respondents say they would never join a political party or action group; and 70 percent say they would not take part in demonstrations. But 79 percent say they either have voted or might vote, given the opportunity. Just over half of Iraqis are now “interested” in politics. In the past year, 31 percent say that their interest has increased, compared to ten percent who say it has decreased.
Today, just days past the one-year anniversary of the start of the war, no party is dominant. Kurds, who have some experience of democracy, are proportionally the most-willing group to express a party-political allegiance. Asked their party preference, ten percent of respondents chose Islamic Al-Dawa; 7.7 percent, the Kurdistan Democratic party; 6.9 percent, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; 4.2 percent, the Iraqi Islamic party; 3.9 percent, the Higher Council of Islamic Revolution; 1.7 percent, the Al-Baath party; and 1.2 percent, the Islamic Union party. But the highest “allegiance” was to “don’t know” (30.2 percent) and “refused” (27.8 percent)–in line with what we have seen regarding public political expression. The secret ballot, honestly instituted, is the essential handmaiden of Iraqi democracy.
Conclusion: The Iraqi people, with no experience of democracy, and a modest set of expectations from it, have a growing desire for it.
A MORE PEACEFUL WORLD?
An old joke describes the efforts of a vain man to pay attention to his friend. “Enough about me,” he says. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”
American assessment of Iraqi opinion suffers the same syndrome. American observers can find plentiful data to support whatever political position they espouse. For instance:
“The war is unpopular”: 41.2 percent of respondents feel “humiliated” by Saddam’s defeat.
“The war is popular”: 48.2 percent of respondents believe the Coalition-led invasion was “right,” versus 39.1 percent who think it was “wrong.” Nearly 42 percent of respondents feel “liberated” by Saddam’s defeat.
The occupation is unpopular”: 50.9 percent of respondents oppose the presence of Coalition forces in Iraq.
The occupation is popular”: 74.3 percent of respondents want the Coalition forces to stay for the present, compared to 15.1 percent who want them to leave. A sizeable constituency wants the Coalition to dig in its heels for the long haul. 18.3 percent want a Coalition presence until order is restored; 35.8 percent want a Coalition presence until an Iraqi government is in place; 1.5 percent want us to stay permanently.
“America is popular”: The U.S. ranks second behind Japan as the nation Iraqis prefer as the rebuilders of their nation; the U.S. ranks second behind the United Arab Emirates as the nation that should serve as Iraq’s model.
“America is unpopular”: Three times more Iraqis say that their country “needs no model” than the number who look to the U.S. for that model.
But the prevailing experience of Iraqis with their conquerors is…nothing. Nearly 78 percent of respondents have never had a personal encounter with Coalition forces. Of those who have had such encounters, 9.3 percent report the experience as “positive,” 8.4 percent as “negative,” and 4.8 percent as “hard to say.” By contrast, virtually everyone has an opinion regarding how their lives have changed in the wake of the war. And that opinion is trending powerfully positive.
Put simply, post-Saddam Iraq is trending in the right direction–or so say its people! Asked to evaluate their lives today, 70 percent rate them “good,” compared to 29 percent “bad.” Comparing their lives today with their lives before the war, 56.5 percent say “better,” compared to 18.6 percent who say “worse.”
Iraqis are even more optimistic regarding the future. Seventy-one percent expect their lives to be better “a year from now,” compared to 6.6 percent who expect things to be worse.
The Oxford study carefully records Iraqis’ opinions on “the biggest problem” they face at present. “Lack of security” rates first, at 22.1 percent; 11.8 percent record “joblessness;” 9.5 percent, “rising prices;” 4.2 percent, “poor electricity supply;” and 3.7 percent point to “poor public services” (roads, water, and so forth).
But in Question 7B, Iraqis were asked to compare these current problems against their pre-war analogues in Saddam’s Iraq. Here are some results:
Your family’s protection from crime: 50.5 percent say things are better now; 38.6 percent, worse.
The security situation: 53.6 percent of respondents say things are better now; 26.4 percent, worse.
Availability of jobs: 38.9 percent, better; 25.3 percent, worse.
Supply of electricity: 43.4 percent, better; 23.0 percent worse.
Availability of clean water: 41.3 percent, better; 16.4 percent, worse.
Availability of medical care: 44.3 percent better; 15.6 percent, worse.
Local schools: 46.9 percent better; 9.4 percent, worse.
Local government: 44.4 percent better, 16.4 percent worse.
The availability of household basics: 44.2 percent better, 16.9 percent worse.
Americans can’t appreciate what daily life was like in Saddam’s pathological totalitarian zoo, where one’s access to justice depended on the ability to bribe police and judges; where prices and business licenses were controlled by state monopolies; where “security” was as much against state-employed thugs as against criminals. The simple absence of these constraints is what Iraqis feel most strongly. It is why their modest understanding of democracy–as a guarantor not of equality, nor of security, but of freedom–is so powerful a motivator.
When the Oxford researchers asked how Iraqis expected the situation to change in each of the above categories over the next year, the optimism was overwhelming. For instance, 74 percent of respondents expect the security situation to improve, compared to 5.3 percent who do not; 73 percent expect the jobs situation to improve, compared to 3.9 percent who do not.
Iraqis have their heroes, too. Those heroes are not “Americans” or “the Coalition.” Actually, their new heroes are the same as ours post-9/11–the public-safety officials who work heroically on their behalf. The only secular forces that enjoy the confidence of the majority of Iraqis–”a great deal” or “quite a lot”–are the new police (67.8 percent) and the new Iraqi army (56 percent). There is a reason why young idealistic Iraqis sign up in droves for the certain danger and erratic pay of public-safety jobs: These are the highest-status jobs in Iraq today, the badge of idealism and honor. Many future politicians of Iraq will arise from these ranks. And they will regard jihadists as their mortal foes.
The popularity of the ongoing transfer of civil authority to Iraqis is a clear indicator that the “forward strategy” can work. A people newly dedicated to democracy, modest in its expectations, is assembling the roots of civil order that underlie civil society.
What is the attitude of contemporary Iraqis toward terror?
An overwhelming proportion despise it. By 81.7 percent to 13.6 percent Iraqis consider attacks on the Coalition Provisional Authority “unacceptable.” They oppose attacks on Iraqis working for the CPA, 92.7 percent to 4.6 percent. By 96.6 percent to 1.5 percent, they reject “attacks on the New Iraqi police.”
In other words, the most spectacular “successes” of the terrorists–targeting Iraqi public safety officials–are those most hated by the populace. An Iraqi democracy will be unlikely to lionize terrorists.
On November 2, an enormous sampling of Americans will demonstrate, through their vote, whether they understand the “forward strategy” of freedom as well as the Iraqis.
–Richard Nadler serves as political advisor to the Republican Leadership Coalition.