Tweets And Strawmen: A Response To Michael Rubin

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

My tweet the other day in response to Michael Rubin’s article hailing Iraqi democracy — in which I wrote “Michael Rubin still defines democracy as ‘elections'” — has apparently made Rubin upset. He writes “Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, appears to believe that democracy can exist without elections.”

While I’ve always maintained that democracy is about more than elections, I will open a challenge to Mr. Katulis. Perhaps he will explain how democracy can exist without an opportunity for people both to select and, at regular times, oust their government peacefully? Perhaps he will explain why the Obama administration should not be more proactive to ensure that the Iraqi elections go smoothly and are not marred by fraud? I hope Mr. Katulis is not taking his animus toward the Bush administration out upon the Iraqi people.

Tweets are, obviously, a form of shorthand. Of course I don’t believe that “democracy can exist without elections” — nor do I think it would “appear” that way to any reasonable person. My point was simply that elections alone don’t make democracy. It’s pretty clear that Michael chose to wildly misinterpret my comment, impute a number of straw arguments to me, and then bravely issue me a “challenge” to defend those arguments. Since Michael doesn’t seem to have bothered to actually figure out what my views on Iraq’s elections and democracy are (easily found under my CAP bio) I don’t really feel the need to respond to his inventions.

This isn’t the first time Michael has responded in this way. As my colleague Matt Yglesias has noted, Michael is “extraordinarily thin-skinned” about criticism of his work — especially when that criticism hits close to the mark.

As Michael knows, I have worked on a number of democracy-building projects around the Middle East — including, like Michael, in post-invasion Iraq. Like Michael, I hope for the best for Iraq as it continues to grapple with the various consequences of the Bush administration’s incompetence. But unlike him, I’m not interested in putting the best possible face on what is still an incredibly violent and unstable reality.

We shouldn’t forget that Iraq still ranks poorly on democracy and human rights indicators provided by respected NGOs and the U.S. government. Freedom House, a democracy promotion NGO widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, continues to rank Iraq as “not free” in its latest annual survey of freedom around the globe. Human Rights Watch’s 2010 annual report characterized the human rights situation in Iraq as “extremely poor.” Even last year’s State Department Country Report on Human Rights contains a list of 23 “significant human rights problems” in Iraq.

These reports come prior to the recent de-Baathification shenanigans that threaten to cast a shadow over the upcoming March parliamentary election. Thankfully, an appeals court has overturned the blacklisting of over 500 Iraqi politicians and it seems like these candidates will be able to participate, though their ultimate status remains to be determined. What this episode has revealed, however, is that Iraqi democracy remains dysfunctional and is still very much in its infancy. It will take more than another election to change this.

As for my “animus” toward the Iraqi people, that’s just pathetic. I know Michael is better than that remark.

I respect Michael Rubin’s perspectives, although I may not always agree with them. He has solid experience in Iraq and knowledge of the complicated situation there. I welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation, just without the strawmen.