We went into Iraq with the goal of creating a democracy where a tyrant had ruled. After a few hundred years of democratic republics, constitutional monarchy, free markets, individual rights, and a tendency toward egalitarianism, we may have come to miss some of the obvious factors that make for a successful nation. It seems so natural to us that we may have imagined it to be the normal, default setting for any society; any instance of tyranny must be due to some interference with the natural progress of freedom, and the removal of that interference would allow that progress to resume.
We may have elevated democracy above its natural priority. The purple fingers in January 2005 led only to months of wrangling, and the new constitution was not in place until October of that year. Actual formation of a permanent government was delayed until May 2006. There were few noticeable differences of principle involved; it looked more like squabbling over the division of loot and control over the state’s enforcement assets. Some of the various Iraqi militias became political parties without disarming, and the security forces often reported along party lines and mixed partisan violence with their supposed law-enforcement duties. Even those security forces ostensibly loyal to the central government are often too badly corrupted to function. Military supplies and arms are trucked in, and all that is needed is a few small bribes at the border. A democratically-elected but totally dysfunctional government is not much different from anarchy.
Solutions are difficult, but they at least require a good statement of the problem. Democracy, as defined by free and fair elections, has been established, yet the situation is clearly not improving. There is a cultural problem in the Middle East that democracy cannot cure.
Paradoxically, people establish a democratic republic because they understand that so much is at stake, but a democratic republic cannot function unless very little is at stake. A party or a person must be exposed to the real possibility of defeat in elections, and if voted out of office, must leave quietly and with as much grace as can be managed. This is only possible because the change in office will not result in show trials, disappearances, confiscations, and mass graves. We have to trust each other to an extraordinary extent, and we have to deserve the trust of each other.
There is not much mutual trust in Iraq. Like much of the Middle East, tribalism is one of the key organizing principles of society. Tribalism reduces the area of trust to its smallest possible radius. This is not only a survival of a primitive trait, but a system approved by Islam. The Koran and Hadith take the tribal structure as a given. Mohammed was a man from an identified tribe; his supporters and enemies were identified as members of friendly and hostile tribes. Even where tribalism is weak or absent, the habit of trusting only one’s family is deeply entrenched. The other side of this restricted area of trust is an enlarged area of mistrust and hatred, which of course is reciprocated. Theft or other crimes against strangers are hardly considered crimes at all. Feuds, vendettas, and retaliatory atrocities are the obvious result. If they cannot be forsworn, they must be suppressed. The late Shah of Iran, defending his autocratic rule, once said “I will act like the king of Sweden when my subjects behave like Swedes.” If the people are incapable of acting like Swedes, they may come to prefer a tyrant.
How can a society move from low trust to high trust? Has it been done? What does it take?