Politics & Policy

Give Democracy a Chance

The Iraqis' choice.

The pending handover of governmental control to Iraqi officials on June 30 has elevated the term “sovereignty” from political and legal cant to something approaching common usage. Much of this talk has been imprecise–which is understandable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the flux of events on the ground in Iraq and the constantly changing political reality there. Last month, for example, after clashes with insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf revealed the inadequacy of Iraqi police and military forces, Paul Bremer made news when he observed, “It is clear that Iraqi forces will not be able, on their own, to deal with these threats by June 30 when an Iraqi government assumes sovereignty.”

It would be more helpful to explain to Iraqis what we mean by the notion of sovereignty in Western political theory, as they will soon be absorbing these democratic traditions in one form or another. According to the principles on which our own nation was founded, the people of Iraq are already sovereign. They are sovereign by virtue of their natural right to govern themselves, a right that they recovered in practice when Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

This is so under social-contract theory, which has dominated Western philosophy since the 17th century and which gave intellectual and normative license to the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the dominant English philosophers of the Founders’ day, were the most famous advocates of social-contract theory. This philosophy holds that the people are born with an inherent right to govern themselves. People may then give all or part of this right to the government in exchange for the government’s protection of certain rights, such as life, liberty, and property. Under this theory, the Iraqi people now are free to bargain with others for protection as they please.

This understanding that the people, rather than the government, are sovereign is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment provides, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” All political power in the United States is delegated by the people.

True, the Iraqi people enjoy their current measure of self-government only by virtue of American arms, arms that are still very much with them. To the extent that Iraqi public opinion continues to favor American military intervention (there have been conflicting polls on this of late), the U.S. military can rightly be seen as possessing political power implicitly delegated by the Iraqi people–at least until a better political arrangement can be brokered. As long as this tacit consent remains, the U.S. is not an occupying power but simply a foreign governmental agent retained for the short-term purpose of restoring law and order and instituting self-rule for the sovereign Iraqi people. Hobbes and Locke would recognize the arrangement well.

In fairness, those who subscribe to positivism, a legal and political philosophy that arose in the 19th century, would likely regard such analysis of sovereignty as insufficient. Positivists would contend that a sovereign is, as a practical and theoretical matter, a person or governmental entity that enjoys habitual obedience from the people. By this reasoning, the sovereign is whatever governmental entity is in power at the time–which would mean, at present, the U.S. military.

Yet even by this definition, the regime that will come into being after June 30 will be marked by consensual divided power–or, if we relent and use the imprecise term of the moment, divided sovereignty. Such a power-sharing agreement between Iraqi and U.S. agents is also in keeping with democratic traditions. The Founders of the American Republic rejected the notions of such thinkers as Jean Bodin, the 16th-century French philosopher who argued that political rule should not be divided. They adopted a blueprint of government that dispersed power by assigning it to several different branches.

Madison summed up this understanding in Federalist No. 47, when he noted, “The accumulation of all powers…in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” This was the intellectual heritage handed down from Polybius to Montesquieu, the principle that power should be divided up to keep one political actor from gathering too much of it.

The obvious difference here is that power would be divided, if temporarily, between a foreign power and a domestic one. But again, for the time being, this division of authority must be regarded as consensual, until the Iraqi people have in place the democratic institutions necessary for them to properly give voice to their preferences. This regime is the necessary intermediate step between autocracy and democracy, one that permits this transfer of power to occur in an orderly fashion without seeing the country promptly lapse into despotism.

Of course, if a majority of Iraqis continue to tell pollsters they want U.S. forces to withdraw, we would likely be witnessing something else. We would be seeing a sovereign people choosing to enslave itself with some new variation of despotism–exercising, as it were, a right to self-rule but only once, as a prelude to a slide into authoritarianism. Such a choice, while foolish, is the natural right of the Iraqi people under the social-contract theory on which our own institutions are based.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal obviously will not help the Western democratic cause. Too many Iraqis will be tempted to view these acts by lawless U.S. soldiers not as isolated depravities, or even as a sordid distillation of a temporary pop culture forged by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Madonna, but rather as a broad indictment of freedom and democracy. This would be the wrong conclusion to draw, of course, and the fact that these abuses will abet anti-democratic forces in the country is arguably the worst aspect of the scandal. At the same time, the decapitation of Nicholas Berg should make clear to all Iraqis the medieval sensibilities of those waiting to climb to the top of the rubble should democracy fail in their country.

The Iraqi people, fully sovereign, will make this decision in the coming months, and if Iraqis do wish to throw away this epochal opportunity for self-government, we cannot force them to be free. If a majority of Iraqis consciously reject democratic traditions, there will be nothing left for us to do but leave them to their own devices and confine our efforts there to our own national self-protection. But rare is the nation that has rejected democracy when given a legitimate chance to opt in. In the meantime, as the inevitable chorus of “give peace a chance” grows louder on the antiwar left, these activists should rather see the unique and historic power-sharing arrangement we have brought to Iraq as suggesting the far better imperative of giving democracy a chance.

Andrew Peyton Thomas is an attorney and author in Phoenix.


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