Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.10.25

Democracy American Style?

JBPress on October 19, 2013

The U.S. Congress passed last-minute legislation to rescue one of the greatest democracies on earth. But ordinary people in Tokyo don't comprehend why the government was shut down in the first place and, therefore, who lost or won this political game in Washington D.C. Many simply wonder: "Is this the kind of democracy the Americans have been preaching?"

The United States government is now reopened, at least until January 2014, with a financial default averted for a few more months, again. Each of the major American political tribes, i.e. the White House, conservative House Republicans and others on the Hill, put the blame on each other, but this chaotic political process will most likely linger on. For me, this is déjà-vu.

Back in 2003-4, there was an entity called the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad. Saddam had been ousted and democracy introduced. The CPA, in reality a U.S.-led occupation administration, tried to rebuild Iraq as the first truly democratic Arab country. The constitution was rewritten and freedom of speech was guaranteed. Guess what happened.

Everybody was free to assert his or her own claim. Each political group, Shias, Sunnis or Kurds alike, proposed extreme requests and would not give in to others. The CPA and its American administrators met with Iraqi politicians every day to convince them that extremism would not help and that they should make every effort towards a compromise.

One day during a short spring period in 2004 Baghdad, a young American visited Japan's representative to the CPA. The former Republican Congressional staffer told the Japanese official that he needed to know what Japan had been doing in Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern province near the Kurdish area.

The Japanese diplomat provided him with some materials, asking the young, twenty-something Midwestern American the reason for his inquiry. He replied: "I just came to Iraq a week ago to attend a seminar in Kirkuk as one of the speakers. I want to use the information to explain how the Coalition can help the people of Iraq. I have to teach them democracy, you know."

The Japanese, a Middle East specialist and an Arabic speaker, almost fell off his chair and said to himself: "This young person doesn't have a clue. He has no idea that Iraq isn't Germany or Japan and that the Iraqis and Kurds are incredibly proud people. The last thing they want is to be dictated to, especially by such a juvenile. Trying to teach them how to be a democratic nation is obviously a futile affair. They've learned from their thousands of years of history that democracy hardly fits their way of life." That was me 10 years ago.

This message was not communicated to the young American. Nobody knows what happened to him after that. He was one of the many young Americans who spent a few weeks or so with the CPA, many of whom knew nothing about Iraq, or for that matter, the Middle East in general. They didn't stand a chance of teaching Iraqis democracy. But that was the reality in the CPA.

Returning to the government shutdown threat, sixteen precious days were wasted by internal bickering. With some exceptions, everybody knew that this would be a "game of chicken" at the end of which the hard-line players would have to back off. However, the extremists are vowing revenge and are determined to continue fighting. Are they Al-Qaida fighters or jihadists? No, they are conservative House Republicans.

2013-14 Washington D.C. is of course not 2003-4 Baghdad. The political battle they fight in Washington D.C. is not, and should not, be like that endless sectarian civil war under democracy in Iraq since 2003. In order to prove that American democracy is not that of Iraq, the Americans, both those who support the establishment and those who don't, must show that there is a difference.

If they really wish to teach democracy to the world, U.S. politicians must first show that they themselves have the sense to listen to others and are constantly ready to make a compromise. Putting extremist sectarian claims aside, they have to show that democracy really works. Without doing that, they don't have credibility in preaching democracy, and are only allowing authoritarian leaders to gloat over this political farce. American conservatism should not miss this opportunity. What is needed now is the evolution of conservatism, not the degeneration thereof.