Politics & Policy

Wanna Be Starting Something?

Sunday's election in Iraq could be a first step for the region.

On Sunday, Iraqis will take their first step towards an independent, democratic country. Press coverage of the event will likely focus on those calling the election a major success and a triumph of Bush foreign policy. Others will likely cite electoral irregularities and the remaining challenges for reconstruction and democratic consolidation. Both will be right, but it is helpful for both sides to contextualize the event in the broader strategic goal of the United States–spreading democracy.

Since Operation Iraqi Freedom, the nonpartisan organization advocating democracy Freedom House notes: “the Coalition Provisional Authority presided over a sweeping expansion of civil liberties and began implementing an ambitious plan to establish a democratic government by the end of 2005.” With more than three decades experience in measuring freedom around the globe, Freedom House’s recognition of change in Iraq is evident in its Freedom in the World Index. The civil liberties of Iraqis increased from completely not free in 2002 to partly free at the end of 2004. These new rights afford Iraqis an opportunity to organize groups, debate their future, and shape their country–these freedoms of expression are unprecedented in Iraq and are a rarity in the Arab world.

With the first steps taken towards democracy this month, Iraqis are beginning the difficult road to transform their country into a democracy. With any luck, Iraq will be the first Arab country in the region to democratize launching what might be the decade for Near East democracy.

While largely an optimistic view when squared against the Iraqi insurgency, we should remember how quickly a wave of democracy can travel. After all, the 1970s saw democracy flourish in southern Europe; the 1980s saw democracy blossom in Latin America; and the 1990s saw Central Europe move away from totalitarianism and consolidate democracy. Since 1990, Freedom House notes that the number of electoral democracies has risen from 69 out of 167 countries to 119 out of 192. There have been solid gains in all regions of the world, except the Near East.

During these same periods, progress has stalled in many countries. Russia is probably the best example of a democratic reversal. Russians find themselves caught between authoritarianism and democracy with a popularly-elected Vladimir Putin, who serves as a reminder that more than elections are needed to bring liberty. Institutions need to be reformed, laws need to be rewritten, an independent media needs to develop, and people need to feel safe and empowered to form groups, publicly debate policy, and participate in the democratic process.

The Russian experience illustrates that democratic transitions are fraught with difficulties. But we should be optimistic because the number of democratic countries in the world have steadily increased. At a time when Russia is moving further away from democracy, its neighbor Ukraine is embracing it. Though it was a certainty three months ago that the “government’s candidate” would become the next president, Ukrainian civil society, media, and judiciary effectively withstood government efforts to defraud the electorate. Last Sunday, Ukraine inaugurated the reformer Victor Yushchenko–a clear success for democracy. The next few years will determine whether or not the democratic processes and society that brought Yushchenko victory will connect Ukraine to the burgeoning community of democracies through NATO and the European Union.

As we begin 2005, freedom is an everyday reality in 89 countries for 2.8 billion people (44 percent of the world’s population). An additional 54 countries representing 1.2 billion people are considered only partly free because rights are undermined by conflict, authoritarianism, or corruption. The remainder of the world’s population lives in unfree countries (mostly in China). The Near East in particular is one of the most undemocratic regions in the world.

Political rights and civil liberties have largely been absent from Arab countries. Though modest gains towards freedom were made in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar last year, the region is mired in authoritarianism. Among the countries of the Near East, Freedom House classifies only one country (Israel) free, five partly free, and 12 not free.

While it might be easy to conclude that Islam and democracy are incompatible, there are several examples to prove the contrary. Muslim-majority countries Mali and Senegal are currently ranked as free. The world’s largest Muslim countries of Nigeria and Indonesia have had recent successes with electoral democracy and are on the path to democratic consolidation. And Turkey serves as a good example of a Muslim-majority country embracing the West, modernizing, and democratizing. All told, nearly half of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims live in electoral democracies. Muslim majorities in Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have also elected women as heads of state–an achievement not reached in the United States or most of Europe.

In the Near East, democracy is impeded by Arab culture and politics, not Islam. Women are denied rights in Saudi Arabia because of Bedouin customs, not sharia (religious law). Christians are persecuted in Egypt because of authoritarianism, not sunna (religious tradition).

As we learned in our political-science classes, the drive for freedom can overcome a resistant culture and oppressive governments. Where liberty is craved, democracy is sure to follow.

The past three decades of democratic progress around the world should remind us the impossible is possible. No one predicted before 1975 that Franco’s fascism would generate Spanish democracy. No one predicted in 1985 that Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost would usher freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. And no one predicted in 1988 Pinochet’s dictatorship would give way to democracy in Chile. These few examples (there are many more) illustrate President Bush’s goal to support the growth of democratic movements is not far-fetched. The United States should continue to be democracy’s midwife and help countries though the difficult periods of democratic transition.

Derek Reveron is the editor of America’s Viceroys: the Military and U.S. Foreign Policy, associate professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College, and a former intelligence analyst for the FBI.

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