In the eternal words of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
With these words, a new society was created with democracy and individual freedom at its foundation. Since then, the United States has become the most powerful nation in the world and constitutional democracy has become the gold standard for government. In its role as the world’s preeminent democracy, the United States — with varying levels of success — has shouldered the burden of spreading this institution to the nations of the world. Currently, our government is engaged in the creation of a new democracy in Iraq.
It is easy to look at the democratization of Iraq as a relatively simple matter, a natural process whereby a liberated country unhesitatingly adopts a superior form of government. Yet such a view overlooks the essential sacrifices and principles that every successful democracy demands.
First, a person who wishes to live in a democracy must surrender his right to the use of force. In a functional democracy, force is legitimately used only by an elected government committed to individual rights and the common good. In Iraq, the centralization of force in the hands of the government has been the most daunting challenge of the American occupation. The most potent manifestation of this challenge has been the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the architect of the widespread Shiite rebellion that erupted in Iraq last week. Sadr is a serious threat to the government’s monopoly of force, and it is essential that his militia be disarmed and disbanded as soon as possible.
Second, the dignity and liberty of the individual, made binding by an inviolable constitution, must become the cornerstone of a new Iraqi state. While this concept may seem natural in the United States, its implementation poses significant challenges in Iraq. Iraq’s population is divided along potent ethnic and religious lines. About 60 percent of the country is composed of Shiite Muslims; the remainder are primarily Sunni Muslims. Racially, three quarters of the Iraqi population are Arabs and one fifth are Kurds. In the past, these ethnic and religious divisions have been a source of violence. For example, after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein’s army violently suppressed both a Shiite and a Kurdish rebellion.
The citizens of the new Iraqi democracy must learn to tolerate different religions and ethnicities. The signing of the interim Iraqi Constitution on March 9 — with its bill of rights and protections of women — was an important step toward ensuring individual freedoms. Yet the Shiite Muslims, who will have a majority in the future Iraqi government, must apply the Iraqi constitution equally to all citizens of Iraq — Sunni Muslims and Kurds included.
Third, a democratic Iraq must conduct a drastic overhaul of its education system. Under Hussein, schoolchildren studied textbooks extolling the Baathist Revolution and demonizing the United States. Since the fall of Hussein’s regime, textbook propaganda has been removed and banned books have become available. Yet a democratic Iraq must now embark on a positive program of education, substituting republican ideals for the regime worship taught during the Baathist regime. In addition, Iraqi schools must make drastic improvements in the quality of general education. These improvement would raise Iraq’s chronically low literacy rates and give Iraqis the skills that are necessary for making reasonable choices in democratic elections.
Lastly, Iraq needs a generation of “founding fathers” — a group of democratically elected leaders who are committed to establishing a constitutional democracy in Iraq. The American appointed Iraqi Governing Council has already demonstrated a commitment to democracy by signing the interim Iraqi constitution. In the future, as American influence diminishes, Iraqi political and religious leaders must maintain this commitment to peace, unity, and constitutional democracy.
Machiavelli once wrote: “a people accustomed to living under the governments of others … return readily under a yoke, which often times is more heavy than that which a short time before had been taken from their necks.” Indeed, the democratization of Iraq will by no means be a simple endeavor, and failure could result in a regime far worse than that of Saddam Hussein. However, with constructive American support, principled Iraqi leaders, and a population committed to constitutional democracy, Iraq will become a free nation and a model for oppressed peoples throughout the world.
Steven Starr is a junior in Saybrook College.