Friday, June 09, 2006


The Iraq War as a Failure in Education

These days the Editorial and Op-Ed pages are full of the debate about Iraq, even though some columnists think there is not enough debate going on. Certainly, a lot of things have gone wrong and some of the early decisions were such that it was inevitable that things would wrong. Nobody knows what were the real motivations of the administration for invading Iraq, but one of their most frequently stated reasons was that they were to impose "regime change" and that the Iraqi people, eager for democracy, would be delighted for that. This seems to have led to the decision to use a smaller force than most military experts advised.

It seems to me that the assumption that Iraqis (or other people) would be eager for "democracy" is the most erroneous of the several assumptions made in the process of going to war. The limited appeal of democracy has been discussed by Fareed Zakaria in his 2003 book The Future of Freedom and, more recently, by Francis Fukuyama in his 2006 book America at the Crossroads. (If you have read these books, you do not need to read this posting.)

Why people may not care for democracy? There are several things more important in people's lives: having food and shelter, safety from violence, and, once the basic needs are met, predictability. People do not like to be surprised. More important than democracy is the rule of law that ensures the most predictable government. There have been authoritarian regimes that respected the rule of law and democratic regimes that did not.

There may be also predictable government in the absence of the rule of law but in the presence of "tribal" custom. A village governed by an unelected council of elders may offer a lot of predictability to its residents. If officials have to be bribed, then a stable "bride schedule" also offers predictability. This kind of regime seems to have been the normal condition in Iraq as well as in all the countries that used to be part of the Ottoman Empire (and in many other parts of the world as well). It was Ottoman policy to encourage self-governing communities. That was not only popular with the communities themselves, it was also good for the imperial government to keep different groups distinct from each other and encourage suspicion amongst them. This way it was unlikely that would join in revolt. The downside of this practice is that once the tyrant/emperor at the top was removed, the groups would fall on each others throats. It happened in the Balkans (most recently in Yugoslavia) and it is happening now in Iraq.

Going into a country that was formed by the arbitrary joining of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire less than 100 years ago and expecting people to be eager for democracy can be attributed only to extreme ignorance. Another failure of our educational system.

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