Saturday, November 22, 2003


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The following article was written by Rami Khouri, Executive Editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is posted here with permission.

The “Agreement on Political Process” that was signed days ago by the US occupation authority in Iraq and the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is an important document that will be interpreted in different ways. It is idealistic, bold and ambitious in its stated quest to define a transition from American-occupied Iraq to a situation of full Iraqi sovereignty in a free and democratic country.
The agreement embodies powerful principles of democratic pluralism, equality before the law, representational federalism and the consent of the governed. It is audacious in the sweep, speed and clarity of the proposed democratic transition (the text is available at the Coalition Provisional Authority website: In just 66 lines it offers a blueprint to wipe out three decades of Iraqi-engineered Baathist tyranny and the previous five decades of British-made post-colonial incoherence, and replace them with an American-inspired Thomas Jefferson on the Tigris.
The specifics are impressive, and hard to argue with. The document drips with references to “freedom,” “equality,” “rights,” “due process,” “independence of the judiciary,” “transparency” and other such fine political values. Its democratization procedures include selection of representative individuals to regional bodies that will ultimately draft a national constitution, ratification of the constitution by the citizenry, caucuses at governorate level to select individuals who will collectively form a transitional national assembly, a constitutional convention of directly elected Iraqis, and other such ringing aspects of accountable democratic governance as it has been successfully practiced for many decades in … Iowa and Idaho.
This document encapsulates the best and worst of America today. It spells out and offers others the finest American governance traditions. If this were a commercial website, I would want to put all these democratic values in my shopping cart. The US gets an A+ for intent. But it gets a D- for implementation. For the manner of Washington’s attempt to transform Iraqi despotism into Iraqi democracy is naive and unrealistic, and its realization will be bumpy for at least four main reasons:
l It totally ignores the points of tension, even incompatibility, that will surface during the meeting of American and indigenous Iraqi-Arab-tribal-Islamic-Kurdish-etc. cultural values (these tensions will be resolved over time by Iraqis, just as they were resolved in the European and American transitions from feudalism-and-slavery to democracy from the 16th to the mid-20th centuries). Forging a new Iraqi nationalism and democracy with the crucible and moulds of American republicanism is as unrealistic as it is noble.
l This agreement is fundamentally imposed by the US, and includes numerous explicit American veto powers over implementation; this “democratization” process is also peculiarly undemocratic, and at second glance seems more colonial than collegiate.
l The Governing Council itself was appointed by the US occupation authority. Many of its members are credible national or tribal leaders, but the council collectively enjoys very mixed legitimacy and credibility among Iraqis (flashback to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands: Two decades ago, the Israeli occupation authority created Palestinian “village leagues,” tried to reach political accords with them and failed miserably and predictably. Why? Because political bodies appointed by an occupying military power and designed to achieve the occupier’s strategic goals enjoy no indigenous legitimacy or credibility, whether in Palestine, Iraq, South Vietnam, Afghanistan ­ or 18th-century Virginia.)
l This agreement reflects American policymaking by panic, which is dangerous for all concerned. The agreement’s content, power balance and hasty promulgation suggest that it aims more to get the US out of Iraq than to allow Iraq to define itself. Intent and credibility usually drive implementation in the adult world, and Washington’s intent and credibility here ­ just as before its war on Iraq ­ remain culturally confused, politically simplistic, motivationally suspect and diplomatically hasty. Washington has taken a good idea ­ transforming tyranny into democracy ­ and implemented it badly, because it largely acts unilaterally, militarily and through narrow American worldviews.
This agreement to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis is flawed but fascinating, and imposed but important. It mirrors a deeper history of how power and culture are exercised in the world ­ how the strong influence the weak and try to reshape them in their own image, and how colonial adventures end.
This process in Iraq today is sad and ugly on two counts: The United States embarrasses itself as an incompetent and dizzy colonial power, as it changes governments and tries to reshape the entire Middle East; but also the Arab governments and peoples throughout the Middle East embarrass themselves even worse, as they prove to be incompetent and docile spectators, passively watching their own post-colonial history of autocracy, passivity and powerlessness replayed over and over again.
The antidote must include a more realistic, humble and multilateral American policy, along with a more profound, activist, honest and credible policy from the Arab countries. Iowa and Idaho became prosperous and democratic because their people demanded, and forged, good governance. America offers us ennobling lessons, along with ugly, imposed colonial treaties. We should beware of, renegotiate and improve the bad treaties, but embrace and achieve the promise of good governance.