Freedom vs. Democracy

Suggestions for fixing Iraq


War is easy; peace is hard, as would-be US administrators of Iraq are learning fast. The media are filled with stories about the failure of the U.S. postwar civil administration in Iraq. The lights are still not on in much of the country; water and sewage systems are not working; nobody has a job; and rampant lawlessness are already causing some Iraqis to long for the halcyon days of Saddam Hussein.

Apparently, waking up to the fact that things are not going well, the Bush Administration has dumped its first administrator, Jay Garner and replaced him with L. Paul Bremer III. Bremer has a good reputation, but does he have a plan? The New York Times reported over the weekend that the US and Britain have decided to slow the creation of a provisional government run by Iraqis and maintain an interim authority run by the coalition forces. Bremer has denied that this is the plan, but if it isn't, it probably should be. Democracy without freedom would be disastrous.

Understandably, Iraqis who after all were promised liberation by US are growing restive, especially since their lives do not seem to be getting better.

For most Americans there is no obvious tension between freedom and democracy, but the two concepts are not necessarily natural allies. In the United States, freedom is guaranteed by constitutional limits on the government's power. Citizens may use their power to vote only on certain prescribed issues. It is true that limits on government power have been eroded and stressed, but they still secure for our citizens freedom of property, religion, press and an independent judiciary. The main point of a constitution is to put limits on what aspects of life are subject to majority rule. Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria makes this point very well in his new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Without freedom, democratic elections can and do result in majority despotism.

However good the US is at waging war, our record at helping countries to evolve into free constitutional democracies leaves much to be desired. Below are a few of my immodest proposals on how to help Iraq to make the transition from despotism to the ranks of free and democratic nations.

First, as is now painfully obvious, establish the rule of law. US planners should draft and devise a plan for imposing a rough and ready but fair criminal and civil code immediately. This system would have to be run by a cadre of coalition military police to maintain order in the streets and judges to rule on cases. Simultaneously begin vetting and recruiting Iraqis to serve as apprentices with the aim of training them to fill these positions once the coalition forces surrender authority to local people. De-Baathization has already begun by banning the party and forbidding the top 30,000 members from working in the government.

Establish the sort of property registration system recommended by Hernando DeSoto aimed at first giving title to the occupants of state owned houses, apartments and land and then later regularize all property claims. Quickly legitimizing property claims will revive the rudiments of market economy and get it working. It is vital that the economy begin improving so that Iraqis can see the benefits of the system that the coalition is trying to get them to adopt as their own. As a matter of equity and to jump-start the economy, set up a system modeled on Alaska's Permanent Fund in which every Iraqi citizen receives royalty payments from the exploitation of Iraqi oil fields. Don't wait for contractors like Bechtel to get in on the ground (though that should have been set up before the war), but begin hiring Iraqis to clean up destroyed infrastructure. This will pump money into the economy, keep people busy, and provide a sense of progress. Supply financing to groups with an identifiably liberal ideology, especially to get their message out to the Iraqi public using newspapers, radio and television.

It may be too late, given the expectations created by earlier US missteps, but if possible, do not convene an Iraqi constitutional convention. Begin the process of democratization at the local level, creating city councils, electing mayors and so forth. Ideally, a series of contested elections would train people to accept and expect the orderly transfer of power between political parties. Announce ahead of time that the goal is to establish a national government based on an already drafted federal constitution providing for things like the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection of property rights, limits on police power, civilian control of the military, and an independent judiciary. If there are objections, one can always reply that the Iraqis can always change the constitution later.

Securing the peace and building a free Iraq is going to take time, but if the coalition doesn't move fast and adopt some of the above recommendations, the Iraqi people will soon regard them as incompetent invaders, not benevolent liberators. In which case, both Iraqi freedom and Iraqi democracy will be the losers.