Politics & Policy

This Is Progress

The court speaks in the case of Saddam Hussein.

The understated significance of Saddam’s death sentence is its real establishment of the rule of law under Democratic governance in the Middle East. And not only the establishment of the rule of law, but the most powerful possible image of the rule of law: the tyrant justly condemned to death by hanging, according to Iraqi law itself.

In what other Arab or Persian nation of the region would a former leader be so well treated in prison, appear in court looking so dapper, and sit through a fair trial — a trial no doubt a bit ragged around the edges at times, a trial held under extreme conditions, and requiring immense fortitude on the part of the judiciary, the prosecution, and the lawyers for the defense. But, by standards unusually high in that region, it is a trial that has been reasonably fair and just.

This due process is not the first, or the only, huge achievement of the democracy project in Iraq. Here I don’t mean to stress the success of the constitutional convention and the public ratification of the constitution by the people, nor the two great and courageous elections that preceded it. Rather, I mean to point out the scores of newspapers and other periodicals that have leapt into life, the multiplication of viewpoints on numerous free radio stations and privately owned television stations. I mean to point out, as well, the huge number of private associations of all sorts, the open and free economic markets, and the strenuous work of a number of diverse political parties.

Finally, I am impressed by the early levels of experimentation in the principles of federalism that are steadily being mounted through by Kurds, Sunni, and Shiites alike. Federalism is an important check and balance against a tyrannical central government. But federalism is hard to put into fair and mutually acceptable practice.

In other words, “democracy” means much more than ballot boxes. It is a way of organizing free and diverse and distinctive associations in all sectors of social life. It is expressed through a new set, and a constantly evolving set, of distinctive democratic institutions, political institutions first of all, but also economic institutions, and cultural/scientific/artistic/religious institutions.

Normally, too, democracy entails one form or another of federalism, or at least of subsidiarity. Federalist experiments are well under way in Iraq, highly developed in the Kurdish region, and moving upwards with great speed in the Sunni and Shiite regions. With important problems within those cities in which populations are highly mixed (Baghdad, Kirkuk, and others), the experiment will require great forbearance and foresight to work out. These urban centers of federalism may be the rocks on which the experiment in democracy comes closest to smashing up.

But perhaps a few “federal regions” or “independent regions” might be set up for urban areas, with strict rules for participatory government formed by contributions from each of the three major population groups (Shiites, Sunni, and Kurds). Perhaps temporary “articles of peace” might be drawn up, to hold firm until living together under the new democratic governmental systems for each city brought to light better ways of organizing the common life.

The trial of Saddam Hussein deserves to go down in the history of democracy in the Middle East as a milestone event. The achievement of this important and highly symbolic step in establishing the rule of law, for the mightiest as well as the lowest, is the single most crucial step in the building of a democratic way of life. Iraq has made quite remarkable progress in building up the crucial infrastructure of democracy. In only three years, quite astonishing progress. Congratulations to Iraq.

And congratulations to the nearly half million U.S. soldiers and civilians who have given their youth to the success of Iraqi democracy, and risked their lives and limbs in the process. If you are willing to look even a little below the tumultuous surface of television and journalistic images, their achievement has been little short of spectacular.

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. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.