Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

An Iraqi Democracy Should Be A Pluralist Democracy

William Harper


May 5, 2003

In the aftermath of the American-British invasion of Iraq and the removal of the Hussein regime, National Public Radio and The Boston Globe surveyed the plethora of political parties in Iraq. These include Kurdish nationalists; once suppressed Islamic parties; the discredited but still present Baathists; communists; and a host of wanna-bes taking shape from out of the rubble. NPR and the Globe concluded that chaos and confusion reign in Iraq. Why do American progressives preach diversity in the abstract but forecast woe when they meet the real thing?

The last thing the Iraqi people need is a simple democracy that hands power to the biggest group, waves off religious worldviews as inherently theocratic, and blunders into a new tyranny—a tyranny of the majority. Where several worldviews persist in the same nation, it is not a threat to its unity to provide for the political expression of those religious confessions and ethnic identities. In fact, that is the best way to guarantee their co-existence. Simple majoritarian democracy would introduce zero-sum competition to the detriment of those consensual aspects of Iraqi identity vital to the integrity of post-Saddam Iraq.

Iraq presents a strong case for pluralist democracy. Any group capable of organizing support ought to be represented politically, but none should exercise a monopoly. Will General Garner and the American military occupiers appreciate this or take advice from those who do? Unused to political parties grounded in ethnic identity or religious confessions, and determined to manage the transition to Iraqi self-government by itself, the administration may shortchange the Iraqis by not drawing on the experience of those familiar with pluralist systems.

If the outlook for pluralist democracy in Iraq seems bleak, we might recall the ways in which President Bush has moved his administration in a decisively pluralist direction.

The centerpiece was the faith-based initiative to expand Charitable Choice. Stalled in Congress, its provisions continue to receive solid support in the courts. Concurrently the Supreme Court's affirmation of vouchers for faith-based schools, which the administration also supports, has given a decidedly pluralist hue to the education-funding landscape. President Bush was an early supporter of Charitable Choice and of school reform while governor of Texas.

Could the president's pluralist instincts transfer into the foreign policy arena? Arguably they could. But a model of pluralist democracy will have to be found outside the United States, since simple majoritarian democracy is the rule in the U.S.

Ironically, American liberal critics of the war stand in no position to counter the administration's approach with a genuinely pluralist alternative for post-war Iraq. Eager to have the United States leave Iraq, they are pressing for an early hand-over of power to the "Iraqi people." When confronted with the reality of the Iraqi people, however, they see chaos and confusion rather than diversity. Unsure of themselves in a multiparty environment that is foreign to America's paleo-democracy, they are poorly positioned to appreciate sophisticated pluralistic systems capable of promoting consensus. They are no more inclined to think of proportional representation than they are of pluralist educational and social-service systems that can do justice to diversity.

As President Bush pursues America's new course in foreign policy, he should face up to a troubling inconsistency. Certain of his domestic policy initiatives hold high the values of confessional liberty and pluralism. But a go-it-alone approach to foreign policy runs the danger of riding roughshod over the complex diversity of a country like Iraq by failing to take advantage of the constructive experience of other democracies in handling similar diversity.

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”