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Cash, Culture, and Violence

Robert Kaplan is, I think, far to vague in offering up "culture" as an account of why it's hard to build a "western-style" democracy in Iraq. Culture is by no means irrelevant, but you've got democracies in a wide variety of cultural contexts -- Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, etc. Are these western-style? Perhaps not, in some sense, but that hardly seems to be the issue. It would be odd indeed if Arab culture were somehow uniquely unsuited to democracy.

The problem is rather more concrete. Iraq's multiethnic situation -- with a bare Shiite majority at around 60 percent, two large minority groups (Sunni Arabs and Kurds), and then smatterings of others -- would seem to call for either a very weak central government (as in Switzerland) or else assymetrical federalism (as in Canada). Both of these solutions, however, are hard to implement in the context of a state that's traditionally been oil-dependent. It's a very hard circle to square. Even if you believe (as you should) that all people are capable of governing themselves democratically, you shouldn't believe that every possible combination of people are capable of governing themselves democratically. Almost every agrees, for example, that if you tried to "solve" the Israel-Palestine dispute by simply recognizing Israel's borders as extending to the Jordan River and then granting citizenship (and equal rights) to the country's Arab residents that, in practice, the country would collapse into inter-ethnic violence, not become a happy, bicultural parliamentary democracy.

November 14, 2004 | Permalink


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...Iraq's multiethnic situation -- with a bare Shiite majority at around 60 percent, two large minority groups (Sunni Arabs and Kurds)...

Shiites and Sunnies are the same ethnicity, and the situation with Kurds - 20% of the population - is not that different than, say, the situation in Israel (sans the territories) where 20% of Israeli Arabs don't cause the state to collapse into inter-ethnic violence or anything like that.

Now, what's a 'western-style democracy' again? I've heard that in the US a bunch of messianic Christians elected a Christian messianic administration two weeks ago. Was that 'western-style'?

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 14, 2004 3:57:16 PM

Those people are the same as we are. They want to be able to do honest work for decent pay, take care of their families, be left alone, and have self-respect.

The reason it's been "hard" to create democracy in Iraq is that we not only haven't made the faintest effort to do so, but we've put pretty much every possible obstacle in democracy's path.

When you relieve large numbers of men of their employment, reduce the pay of the rest, disrupt the infrastructure and don't even let people form unions, you've virtually guaranteed that they will see each other as competitors for what little is left rather than as neighbors with a common purpose.

Really, this isn't rocket science. We know how this stuff works. The people who were put in charge of "bringing decmoracy to Iraq" either didn't know what they were doing or didn't want to bring democracy to Iraq.

Posted by: Avedon | Nov 14, 2004 4:05:28 PM

How about "too vague" rather than "to vague" in the opening sentence. Watch out for those homonymns. (Offered as a constructive comment.)

Posted by: John Goldin | Nov 14, 2004 4:36:01 PM

I read Kaplan's article this morning and thought it shallow and wrong-headed. It is based on the totally false premise that bringing "democracy" in any meaningful sense was ever, for a single moment, among the true objectives of the Bush/Blair/Howard axis of aggression.

Kaplan would do better to worry about preserving democracy in the USA than write such patronizing drivel about the Iraqis. In any case, why should we put the slightest value on the views of someone who supported this illegal and criminal war in the first place?

Posted by: messenger | Nov 14, 2004 4:44:58 PM

"...they will see each other as competitors for what little is left rather than as neighbors...."

I think that's a brilliant insight.

It appears the Bush administration was primarily interested with bringing capitalism to Iraq. Did the Iraqis get to vote on the privatization of their resources? Of course not. Even though privatization is actually creating greater hardships on Iraqis and contributing to the fomenting of violence.

So if privatization was fundamental then obviously capitalism was the first concern, safety and democracy a distant seconds and third.

I do think Matt is correct in his analysis; the groups are too disparate in their views and cultures to be able to magically come together in a democratic fashion. People on this blog trash Canadians for being too leftist all the time; I imagine if our countries were put on equal footing under a new Constitution and forced to work together we'd have a hell of a time. And who are more like Americans than Canadians???

The majority of the Sunni and Shia are the same ethnicity but have very different cultures, values, and world views. They may not be different ethnic groups in reality but in essence they are, and that is a huge obstacle to their fashioning a working democracy.

Posted by: Windhorse | Nov 14, 2004 4:49:24 PM

I'm not sure if Kaplan is really talking about "culture" per se, at least in the way we might be thinking about it. I read it as refering more to specifically political traditions and institutions, as well as economic arrangements, viewed as a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. However, his failure to factor in the what happened in the region post-WWI seems like a definite problem to me . . .

-Dan S.

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 14, 2004 4:52:15 PM

The majority of Sunnis and Shi'ites do not have radically different cultures, values, and worldviews. Even if religion were the key factor dividing Iraqi society - which it wasn't until fairly recently - the two main branches of Islam are barely distinguishable, especially now that the imamate is mostly considered defunct pending eschatological time.

Sunnis and Shi'ites have fared differently in Iraq because of the way power has been exercised mainly by Sunnis, and in Iraq's non-democratic environment those with access to power and influence are those with personal ties to the government, in this case also Sunnis. Sunni and Shi'ite in Iraq are very close to being stand-ins for different social classes, and attempts by administration officials to read Iraq as multi-ethnic in the sense of, say, Yugoslavia are dangerous. Peter Sluglett has generally done a good job of explaining this.

Also, people forget the grassroots interest in municipal elections during Summer 2003.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich | Nov 14, 2004 4:59:08 PM


yup. it is.

Posted by: David Sucher | Nov 14, 2004 5:13:47 PM

India has an extremely multi-ethnic situation with several religions, 15 national languages (incl. English) and indigenous people of at least 3 different races (Dravidian, Aryan and Mongoloid.)

And India is a democracy with a strong center and weaker (compared to the USA) states; states don't have constitutions and constitutional amendments don't have to be ratified by the states.

I believe it is possible for any country to accept, adapt and implement democracy. But I'm perennially confused by the construct 'western-style democracy;' what is it, what other stle is there and how are they different? Is there really one western-style democracy? Does it refer to westminister-style parliamentary or US-style presidential or French-style democracy?

Posted by: Sydney Carton | Nov 14, 2004 5:20:47 PM

WRONG. Iraq could have had elections a year ago. BUT, the US would not have been happy with the result. It is the US interference that is the major stumbling block. At first the US tried to GAME the SYSTEM to install Chalabi and now Allawi that is the biggest obstacle. The US does not want an Iraq ruled by Muqtada al Sadr and if the US has to kill another 100,000 Iraqis to delay that outcome, then that is the policy that Bush will pursue.

The Bush administration does not care if Iraq is democratic. They only want an Iraq where American businesses can go to make money.

Posted by: bakho | Nov 14, 2004 5:50:49 PM

Ulrich knows of what he speaks; also bakho makes an important point.

Perhaps we could more usefully compare Iraq to Russia, and try to see what has caused the impediments to democracy there. A lack of faith in institutions due to systemic corruption, for example.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 14, 2004 6:02:55 PM

What leads you to believe that if the US pulled out tomorrow, and the infrasturture for a national election was magically in place the next day, Sadr would win, or even do particularly well? I am not questioning what I take as your overall point, that the US doesn't want to allow an unconstrained democratic election in Iraq, but some of your particular conclusions seem off.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Nov 14, 2004 6:19:23 PM

Meant to address that comment to bakho, oops

Posted by: washerdreyer | Nov 14, 2004 6:22:59 PM

>or else assymetrical federalism

Oh, christ, not again.

It is asymmetrical. As in a-symmetrical. Not symmetrical

It isn't ass-ymetrical.

Posted by: raj | Nov 14, 2004 6:36:47 PM

Valid points. However, keep in mind that in the end the one thing that will unite these disparate elements (except possibly the Kurds) is a hatred of the U.S. And we can thank the Bush Administration for fanning the flames of that hatred.

Progressive Democrats should be pushing policies that will benefit large numbers of Iraqi people. Regardless of the ecnomic merits of privatization it is rightly or wrongly perceived by the masses as being elitist. Since it looks like Iraq will be democratic in some way progressive Dems should point out it is in our interests to fight on behalf of the Iraqi people against the entrenched special interests.

Posted by: Jay | Nov 14, 2004 6:42:01 PM

If a fair election is held, and info regarding party stances is honest and widely distributed, and a people overwhelmingly elect a candidate from the Authoritarian Party, a party which has a platform regarding the culling of certain rights in the name of security, well, is this a democracy? Are we more concerned about the will of the majority or the protection of the minority? (I know it's really guaranteed access to oil and Israeli security but this is just an exercise.)

Sydney - "and indigenous people of at least 3 different races (Dravidian, Aryan and Mongoloid.)"
Your race lables are a bit startling. What race do you consider Swedes to be? Or Italians? And who do you consider a Dravidian?

Posted by: karol | Nov 14, 2004 7:36:49 PM

raj - do I mean "labels"?

Posted by: karol | Nov 14, 2004 7:39:58 PM

I'm a great fan of weak central governments, and federalism... When are we going to see Democrats suggest that as a way of easing tensions in THIS country?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 14, 2004 8:13:19 PM

Sunnis and Shias have been fighting and killing each other for a long time.

Pakistan alone estimates four thousand deaths from intra-sect violence in the past fifteen years or so.

I would say that constitutes difference in worldviews. Even more than, say, Unitarians and Pentecostals, who despite their differences manage to get by. But the point about them being stand-ins for social classes is well taken. That perhaps delineates their differences even moreso than their religion.

Posted by: Windhorse | Nov 14, 2004 8:20:13 PM

1. Seriously, everybody lay off the spelling issues.

2. Aryan and mongoloid are only valid racial charectierizations if you are Carl Linnaeus, you are not.

3. Also, "Cash, Culture, and Violence". Excellent Rancid reference.

Posted by: JD | Nov 14, 2004 8:22:02 PM

"Robert Kaplan is, I think, far too vague in offering up "culture" as an account of why it's hard to build a "western-style" democracy in Iraq."

I'm wondering about our chances for establishing a western-style democracy here in the USA.

Posted by: peter jung | Nov 14, 2004 8:32:26 PM

"I'm a great fan of weak central governments, and federalism... When are we going to see Democrats suggest that as a way of easing tensions in THIS country?"

Um, probably when the Republicans abuse federal power to such a point that society is on the verge of civil unrest.

I don't know if you caught the last election, but the Democrats no longer hold any actual power in the U.S. government. They are "persona castrata". The imposing federal government you see is the Republican version you voted for. People don't seem to mind them them overturning state referendums on assisted suicide or medical marijuana, but there may come a day when it's an issue closer to their hearts.

When that day comes, good luck with all that. And until then, remember: it's Clinton blowjob blowjob Hillary unions Kerry gun control gays gays gun control all the way!

Posted by: reportcard | Nov 14, 2004 8:37:47 PM

I always liked Matt White's observation:

No one really knows what causes democracy. Most scholars believe that the presence of a strong middle class has a lot to do with it, but unfortunately, that doesn't explain India. A minority believe that democracy and Christianity are linked, but that, too, fails to explain India. You might deny the significance of India, saying it's only one country. It is, however, a really big country. It accounts for almost half the people who have lived under democratic regimes throughout history. [...T]hey were conquered by a democracy, but then, why didn't Nigeria or Ghana develop a strong democratic tradition? And where did Spain -- never conquered, passed around between kings and dictators -- get the tradition?

No, the search for a grand, unified theory of democracy continues.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Nov 14, 2004 10:31:52 PM

It has been prematurely thrust on them, but there is no reason Iraq can't form a stable democratic republic. A loose confederation, or you lose the Kurds and the oilfields around Kirkuk, with the Sunnis fighting for a place at the table? Possible. Don't bet your life, or you kids'. What a mess.

As for Israel, you just draw Palestine onto the map, let those whose oxen are gored get the shooting over with, and convince the powers that be in the new Palestine that their interests lie in stability.

Bush should invade the West Bank and Gaza, not Iran or North Korea, next. Transformative. Transformer: Bush, blundering dunce to cunning internationalist.

Posted by: epistemology | Nov 14, 2004 10:37:14 PM

So just to connect the dots here, it seems like the problem with Iraq is not the fact that it has many ethnicities or religious sects per se, but the fact that there are longstanding grievances between the divisions that do exist. That makes the situation more similar to a place like Yugoslavia or (gulp) Rwanda than India or Russia (and even Russia is no great shakes).

Posted by: JP | Nov 14, 2004 11:14:35 PM

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