Genuine births never are in doubt. Either the baby is alive and crying, or not. But in the case of Iraq, democracy was born already in its dotage, hooked up to intravenous devices and breathing tubes. There even is a sort of vital monitor; we do not know whether democracy is alive until we see the final count for voter turnout. Will we call it democracy if more than 50% of voters turned out? Twenty percent surely would not do. But how about 50% in Shi’ite areas and 20% in Sunni areas? What numbers assure us that Iraq is a democracy?

The question might be asked another way: take any country, and assume that 1) almost all public and private revenues derive from oil, 2) oil is owned entirely by the state, 3) the unemployment rate is above 40%, and 4) everyone depends on state subsidies for basic needs. Then tell people that they have to write down the names of the representatives who will control these revenues and pay out state subsidies. Will they turn up to vote or not? That applies just as well to the Palestinian authority’s January elections as to Iraq’s. In the case of Palestine, the bonanza is not oil but the largesse of foreign donors, who contribute a billion dollars per year, or almost one-third of the Palestinians’ gross domestic product (GDP).

Elections of a sort took place in Iraq on Sunday, and one might prefer them to other things that Iraqis might have done that day. One has to give Washington some credit for this, and allow that US President George W. Bush has made some of Iraq’s critics look silly. All of this is beside the point; the Iraqi elections, I shall argue, offer no precedent at all for democracy in the Arab world or anywhere else (with the limited exception of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait).

Permit me one historical observation: neither the electors nor the elections, however, bear any resemblance to democracy as it was born in the modern world. Leave aside the religious dimension for a moment, and consider the simple economics. The Spanish Netherlands were Europe’s workshop for everything from textiles to military stores, and a center of the arts to rival Italy. When the Dutch rose against their Spanish overlords in 1568, Spain was desperately in debt to them.

The democrats were keen to manage their own business, in good part, because they had business to manage. More than money prompted the Dutch, and later the Americans, to challenge the most powerful empires of their time, a losing proposition, at least at first. Prosperous Dutch merchants declared themselves “sea-beggars” and laughed at Spanish confiscations, and well-to-do American farmers pledged life, fortune and sacred honor. But let us leave aside the spiritual foundation of democracy for a moment. The democrats also were the agents of material success because they were the cleverest, most innovative and most daring, and this success emboldened them to throw off the yoke of Philip II or George III.

Recall Bernard Lewis’ marvelous summation of Middle Eastern economics, namely that the whole Arab world exports (net of oil) less than Finland. Iraq’s GDP in 2003 was about $38 billion, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book. Oil exports in January ran at a $30 billion annual rate, which makes clear how little else but oil counts in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, a small group of Sunnis controlled the oil. Now a Shi’ite-dominated government will control the oil. How much incentive did the Shi’ites require to vote? Whether a civil war will ensue from this largely is a matter of semantics. What can the Sunnis do besides starve in the sand in the country’s center?

There is a subtler effect when only one political good dominates the whole economy (oil in Iraq, donor aid in Palestine). Distribution of largesse from a central treasury does not threaten traditional social relations. No element of “creative destruction” is present in what now passes for Iraqi democracy. That is, nothing about the extraction, transportation and sale of oil requires changes in behavior of people who otherwise might stick to habits acquired in the Low Middle Ages. Islam is inextricably linked to the smallest details of traditional life, particularly among Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s followers in Iraq (Why Islam baffles America, April 16, 2004).

The test of democracy occurs when a population decides whether it wants change or not. Entrepreneurship, technical innovation and new kinds of industrial organization demand a great deal of freedom, both at the political as well as the personal level. They also require access to world capital markets. The average Chinese, not to mention the average Singaporean, has a great deal more opportunity to advance than the average Iraqi. Iraqi society, especially the Shi’ites who will dominate the new government, remain conservative, traditionalist and unsuited to compete in the modern world. Oil provides a buffer, but one that will not last forever.

It is possible to keep a country breathing on the fiscal equivalent of an iron lung, if the country has enough of a high-priced commodity, or if the world community is willing to subsidize it. But one should not confuse that with self-determination. It is rather an accident of history. Enough American military presence can prevent the facade of Iraq from splitting into three pieces, at least for the time being, and the Shi’ite government may proceed with all the appurtenances of parliamentary democracy. But to represent what just occurred in Iraq as a precedent of any kind for anyone else requires better ideological reflexes than this writer possesses.

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