This is Not What a Good Prospect for Democracy Looks Like


Alissa Rubin’s look at recent political developments in Iraq is very interesting, but the lede seems overwrought to me:

With provincial elections scheduled for the end of January, Iraq appears to be plagued by political troubles that seem closer to Shakespearean drama than to nascent democracy.

It’s true that nascent democracy is hard to see in Iraq. But the events unfolding aren’t especially outlandish. What would be outlandish, really, would be for democracy to bloom in the land between the rivers. Everything we know about regime types and democratic consolidation always indicated that Iraq was an exceedingly non-promising locale for a democratic transformation. The fact that starting in mid-2003 the United States spent years combating a worsening insurgency tended to distract attention from the subject of democracy per se. But over the past year, with the insurgency on the wane this comes back into focus.

But it’s difficult for democracy to prosper in countries with serious ethnic and sectarian divides, especially when the majority group is — like Iraq’s Shiite Arabs — a less-than-overwhelming majority. It’s also difficult for democracy to prosper in countries whose economies are centered around national resource extraction. Conversely, it’s helpful for a democratic transition for a country to have democratic neighbors or to be integrating into multilateral democratic institutions. But of course, Iraq doesn’t have those things. Bad for democracy is to have neighbors with rival geopolitical designs that they’re trying to play out inside your territory.

Under the circumstances, Iraq will probably be pretty unstable for a while and then eventually someone or other will consolidate control over the country and they’ll almost certainly be using means that don’t get you an A on your democracy promotion 101 test.