America, our coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working toward the same goal — a democratic Iraq that can defend itself, that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists, and that will serve as a model of freedom for the Middle East. ~President George W. Bush

Here, in the President’s own words, is the statement of Washington’s present objective in Iraq. It does not require anyone to believe that the war was immoral or illegal to see that this goal is unattainable. It also does not require opponents of the war to quibble over tactical mistakes or engage in “gotcha” criticism the moment there are noticeable obstacles in the functioning of Iraqi “democracy.” Of course there were voting irregularities and militia intimidation in the Dec. 15 vote–opponents of the war would be the first to expect this, and conservatives most of all, as any self-styled conservative worth his salt does not really believe (whatever he may say, and whatever his favourite columnists may write) that Iraqi “democracy,” whether it relatively ‘functions’ or ‘fails’ outright, will improve that society at all or affect one whit how the geopolitical situation in the Near East develops.

A “democratic Iraq” does not need to collapse into authoritarianism and dictatorship (although it probably will) to create disaster for the Iraqis. It could faithfully represent the interests and demands of the people of the country, not only to the detriment of American interests but to the ruin of Iraqi society as well. Nothing so exacerbates ethnic and sectarian rifts as competition for real power (it is this competition, and not “ancient quarrels” that only Old World people supposedly cultivate, that has caused so many of the ethnic wars of the 1990s), and nothing entices people to believe that real power is available to them than the chimerical lies of “democracy.” If there is real, ongoing competition for power in Iraq, it will intensify every sort of division in that society and lead to blooshed (do we really believe that perpetual minorities in Iraqi elections will bide their time and accept the results as their political strength ebbs away with each election?), and if there is a false peace of “consensus” politics created by U.S.-friendly managerial elites (as there is in eastern Europe at present) the resentment and disillusionment will be tremendous and will probably spark a larger-scale popular revolution.

There will be no political transformation, no “model of freedom,” but a turn to alternative models within Iraq inside a hollow shell of empty rhetorical salutes to “freedom and democracy.” Iraq stands a very good chance of experiencing some sort of homegrown Bonapartism–there is a reason the “man on the horse” is often desired by the masses, and that is because they or their representatives flounder and quarrel to the general disgust of all in their early days in power. If Iraq does not rapidly have its own supreme Ayatollah, it will have a supreme generalissimo or sultan (regardless of the title he chooses to employ). This is not because (or not only because) of some defect in Iraq’s organic constitution (as opposed to the meaningless document that goes by the name of constitution), but because of a basic flaw in man and the basic predicament of human political organisation.

We know full well how disillusioned many of us are with mass managerial democracy, and it is our own invention and something that many of us (pretend to) treasure because it is part of our history–imagine how disgusted and frustrated Iraqis will be after a year or two of such government, especially as that government fails to quell internal violence, cannot provide the socialist services to which a majority of the people have become well-accustomed (and which the new government will commit itself to restoring at some level) and remains permanently tainted, Weimar-like, by the stain of collaboration with foreign powers.

Even if–no, especially if Mr. Bush is successful in establishing a “democratic Iraq,” it does not promise to be a beacon to its neighbours, but a warning signal of why they should avoid this model at all costs, and in its persistent instability it does promise to be a beacon to jihadis worldwide. In any event, our continued presence only ensures that our soldiers will be the most attractive targets for those jihadis, and our continuation of the war in Iraq will serve as fuel for the jihadi cause just as Soviet-occupied Afghanistan did once before. In other words, even with what an idiotic Western observer might regard as passably ‘successful’ democracy Iraq will become what Mr. Bush hopes that it will not become (a terrorist magnet and haven) and will not become what he hopes that it will (a “model of freedom”). Mr. Bush’s stated objective is madness.

Let us meditate on an example of the irrelevance of democratic and “free” government in an Arab country. United Yemen has had a ‘constitutional’ and representative system of government set up on top of its actual tribal social structure for over ten years, and everyone knows that President Saleh and his secular ruling party (which goes by the uninspiring moniker of General People’s Congress) will continue to govern in the interests of the northern Zaydi tribesmen whom it represents. There will continue to be relatively open and ‘free’ elections indefinitely, and with less coercion than was demonstrated in the Dec. 15 Iraqi balloting, and the same predictable results will come back, re-endorsing the majority of the ruling party and the supremacy of President Saleh (or whomever he chooses as his replacement when the time comes) with a reliability matched only by U.S. House elections. The second party, Al-Islah (Reform), will continue to promote Islamism in an awkward balancing act between opposition to and collaboration with the republican ruling elite. The two together represent the northern Yemeni goal of keeping down the socialist (‘ex’-communist) southerners who represent the tribal interests of the Hawdramawt region.

This fairly ‘stable’ political arrangement has changed absolutely nothing as far as the radical Islamism that flourishes in Yemen is concerned, nor is the republican government foolish enough to antagonise thoroughly a major part of its power base among the hill tribes of northwestern Yemen by attacking this radical Islamism any more strongly than it has done. For all its representative institutions, no one would seriously confuse Yemen with a free or particularly prosperous country (it is, for one, already overpopulated and set to become more so over time). In spite of its representative institutions, Yemen technically remains a secular republic, but Yemen has had the advantage of historically being dominated by one of the less zealous Shi’ite sects and so in this respect serves as a very poor guide for how Iraqi Shi’ites will govern. The government in Sana’a is formally cooperative with Washington on security matters, and I think it fair to say that the government in Sana’a is genuinely concerned about the influence of al-Qaeda, but the fundamental structures of Yemeni society will always prevent it from becoming anything more than a nominal ally and a recruiting ground for al-Qaeda.

Like the GPC, if a stable Iraqi coalition government can be formed, any government will entrench itself and ensure its permanent superiority, perhaps through the use of party militias, perhaps through the abuse of state institutions (including the army we will have helped to create) directly. It will not matter how it is done–there is nothing in Iraqi political habits that will prevent it, and no real countervailing power that will be able to block these abuses without recourse to armed resistance. It is fairly axiomatic in our political discourse that ongoing, effectively one-party rule, even in an alleged democracy, is no better than dictatorship in its capacity for corruption, abuse of power, lawlessness and violence.

All of this is not to belittle Iraqis as cretins or praise Westerners for ‘their’ accomplishments–modern Westerners, if they did not already have this system of government as their inheritance and the ingrained habits of an established political culture with centuries-deep roots, would be no more capable of making any of this work from scratch than anyone else. That is, of course, why a people’s history and culture matter far, far more than their ephemeral “desire for freedom,” most of which is mostly a product of unrestrained passion and not an ordered, rightly-directed desire in any event. But modern Westerners’ incompetence at preserving their political institutions in a sane state is a perfect example of why this generation of Westerners is uniquely unsuited to teaching others how to govern themselves–we do not know how to do it ourselves, aside from routine ritual performances of voting, and haven’t the foggiest how it actually works or really whence it came. Mass man makes a fairly poor teacher, and he also does not have the patience for the sorts of multigenerational commitments (they would be multigenerational if he seriously intended to see them through) to which he flippantly commits himself.

Aside from emerging from a religious culture that (unlike Islam) ultimately allowed the distinct evolution of secular institutions that co-existed more or less closely with, but never fully became, institutions of religious authority and so were able to draw on secular traditions of government (themselves extracted and separated from their ancient, once-religious context), successful, self-governing, constitutional, parliamentary polities arose in a few odd corners of the Christian world only exceptionally. They were the products of a series of contingent conflicts between rival elites over the course of centuries, and had any of the elites known what they were helping to create they would probably have hastily patched up their disagreements and reconsidered their position. Very few have consciously tried to create mass participatory governments, and even fewer have succeeded, and none has done so without inaugurating a century of either political strife or war. It is, generally speaking, one of the Bad Ideas in history.

What we propose to do in Iraq is something like dropping the Reform Act of 1867 on Plantaganet England–it is actually even more far-fetched and fantastic than that. The idea that a version of this finished product of this unusual trajectory (unusual even for European civilisation) could ever be grafted onto an entirely alien political culture without extensive, continuing dislocation, disorder and violence was simply folly born of pride or ignorance. The establishment of formal institutions of “democracy” cannot refashion a people to make them suitable for these institutions. This is not a question of a people’s worth, much less, God help us, their supposed “desire for freedom,” but that different nations may require different polities just as different maladies require different cures or different organisms require different kinds of nourishment.

All of this struggle at the formal, official level in Iraq will be an expression of tribal and sectarian interests, as every political position taken by Iraqi politicians is a statement of their groups’ interests, especially including those that eschew sectarianism. Opposition to sectarianism is a strategy adopted by either marginal sects or the majority sect (in this case, the Shi’ites) to mask their particular interests under the cloak of a broader identity. Genuine universalists, who are uninterested in the fate of their tribe, sect or ethnicity, are such odd fish that they can be safely discounted from any analysis. Finally, the dangers of mass radicalisation because of democratisation are far greater and more immediate in Iraq, whose democratisation some very foolish people are touting as a sign of some kind of progress.