Saturday, October 30, 2004


System of Government

Seeking Solutions (4)
Where Do We Want to Go? (ii)

This may seem to be a frivolous issue to most people in America and the West, but it is not obvious to all people under the present environment in Iraq. Many people feel that the present state of chaos, lawlessness, armed militias, presence of terrorists and the prevailing wave of criminality, kidnappings, beheadings as well as the disintegrating civil service and public utilities… all require a strong and firm hand of leadership.

I have not seen many such arguments made in public. But in private, many people argue that a "benevolent tyrant" (!) may be the only hope of picking up the country from the present, seemingly hopeless state of chaos. These people argue that such strong leaders as Franco in Spain and Mustafa Kamal in Turkey for example managed to ultimately lead their countries into democratic systems of government.

I have outlined this argument as an alternative for the purpose of completeness of the debate but, frankly, I cannot see much chance of it leading to stability except through oppression and brutal force.

Besides, since the country is under occupation at present, any such figure will by necessity have to be a "puppet" in one form or another. The best we could hope for would be someone like General Musharraf or General Pinochet! To me, this is not a very appealing option.

My own belief is that there is no possible solution to the multitude of problems in Iraq other than democracy.


Hello Abu Khalil,
'Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others'. As you can see from our US election is really can be awful! Here you can see the polarization in the US-winner-take-all approach--I can't help thinking such a system would lead to civil war. Americans are actually quite contemptuous of their own democracy as their actual goal is maximizing personal freedom. I noticed that Iraqis like to talk about a cultural 'mosaic', even in preference to individual freedom as in the US Bill of Rights. How can democracy contribute to that? I noticed that in Lebanon, they used to have(?) government positions alloted by cultural group. What troubles me is the lack of open politics in Iraq- but that is an American cultural bias.
To me the most important thing is the security and happiness of the people, not abstract ideas of freedom which does not correspond to their culture. But to maintain a 'mosaic' minority rights must be even more fundamental than democracy.

How about Law, Order and Good Government like in Canada! I am sure the Iraqis would prefer that.

Hello Abu Khalil

I think that the most negative effects of democracy are the effects of elections. I live in Florida--a "battleground" state and famous for the legal case that decided the American President in 2000.

The winner of any election must divide his voters from his opponents and must motivate (frighten, anger) his voters to action against the 'other' group. This dividing and conquering is then projected in the parliament/congress as coalitions are arranged for the purpose of passing laws.

This is the meaning (for me) of the part of that famous phrase (from WinstonChurchill, I think) that Democracy is the 'worst' political system.

Yesterday I waited in line for over an hour to cast my vote and it's still 4 days until the actual election day!! This is how motivated I am to vote against 'the other side'.

But a funny thing! In that long line, everyone was friendly!! People were chatting pleasantly with strangers, sharing coffee, helping elderly voters in the line find a chair and so on. No one was arguing or angry. We were country-men, sharing together our traditions & heritage of choosing our leaders. Everyone there probably would have agreed that "their" candidate and party has flaws and has made mistakes. We all hoped that our personal party would win but did not "know" that we were right and the other party is wrong. We only hoped and had faith that our vote would be 'correct' but knew in our inner heart that perhaps we are wrong and that the other party might not only win but would be the 'right' choice.

That is the meaning of the rest of that phrase: 'except all the other political systems'.

I think Iraqis must ask this question of themselves: Can their shared history and sense of being countrymen together, survive and prosper in electoral democracy.

Remember that we in the Anglo-Saxon democracies have been learning to do this for almost a thousand years. (Usually 'democracy' is thought to have started around the year 1200--forgive me for forgetting the dates--with the Magna Carta.) And we have learned that the only way it works is if we are guaranteed personal freedoms even if our party/region/class loses the election today--so that we can come back in the next election and possibly win.

It is the personal liberties and freedoms, not the elections, that make democracy work. That is why 'strong leaders' and 'benevolent tyranny' doesn't really nuture and grow into democracy.

(By the way, I voted for Mr Kerry.)

Thank you for your BLOG. Perhaps we'll meet someday and share thoughts and coffee, in a better world.


Hello John MC,
"Yesterday I waited in line for over an hour to cast my vote and it's still 4 days until the actual election day!! This is how motivated I am to vote against 'the other side'.

But a funny thing! In that long line, everyone was friendly!! People were chatting pleasantly with strangers, sharing coffee, helping elderly voters in the line find a chair and so on. No one was arguing or angry."

I hope I don't run one hour to vote nonsense. Did you use the computers, did they breakdown and cause the lines? I heard that on Florida machines there is no way to recount. Why can't our public officials fix this system? I am somewhat reassured by your description, but I am quite uneasy. If there is wide-spread vote suppression or fraud, it could cause a real crisis. Imagine if Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq and our democracy is shown to be a sham! Shame on public officials for not doing their most important job, guarranteeing free and fair elections in America!

I am always amazed when I read of our own (US) history, and the years just following the revolution. It was a pretty small minority that pushed for the revolution, most others tending to watch from the sidelines. We couldn't have done it without France. And when George Washington was elected, people were willing to have him be King, he was so beloved. And yet, in some ways his greatest feat was to turn away from that and throw it up to elections.

If you read about those early elections and the pamphleteering that each side would do...Lordy they were harsh on each other. They make even this election seem tame in comparison. No accusation was too spurious. Duels were fought even. And yet...somehow things muddled through. There was always this vague central moral compass of sorts, the Constitution, that kept interfering with man's more base instincts.

Kant referred to us as the "crooked timber of mankind" or something like that, and I always remember that before laying criticism on any government. How can any system be perfect when the pieces it is constructed from (us) are so imperfect?

In short, your next set of leaders are critical to your success. I hope you pick wisely, and they prove up to the task and dedicated to the cause. Don't be too harsh on their mistakes, as long as they push in the right direction.

Navy Guy


Perhaps what Iraqis need is some form of democracy closer to our "early" democracies, rather than the full-blown Western liberal pluralist democracy.

A constitutional monarcy is obviously out of the question, but if we look at some of the other early democracies similar things were going on.

Britain's parlimentary system started with the "House of Lords", which is essentially a council of landed nobility. Later on the House of Commons was added, and the House of Lords withered away. (It's still around but rubber stamps everything). The early US gave voting rights only to male property owners.

Furthermore the Electoral College was originally envisioned be a council of respected statemen who would choose the President, separate from any presidential campaign, though it quickly evolved so that electors were commited to one or the other candidate.

I can't see not giving the vote to women or minorities. Iraq's past that I think. Also, I don't think that the tribal system should be encouraged too much because that would entrench nepotism into the system and over time some tribes would gain unequal advantages from it. But maybe some sort of system involving a two-chamber legislature could be worked out.

Say ... one chamber like the "House of Lords" or Senate, consisting of tribal elders, religious leaders, and other respected individuals, each with litetime appointments. A second chamber of popularly elected representatives. Perhaps the Senate would have some role in selecting the President and Prime Minister.

Canada has a senate like this that consists of elder statesmen with lifetime appointments. It rarely vetos anything today, but it used to be more active.

Maybe early democracies are better able to function when they start off with a "House of Lords" or "Senate" type of council providing a more mature hand to guide the nation, and prevent anyone from taking any too drastic action, instead of popular passions.

In the US and Britain these people are appointed by the Head of State. But some system might be worked out whereby religious or tribal institutions could select the representatives of their choice instead of having lifetime appointments. Either could work for Iraq.

From Circular
Yes Abu, in mentioning Franco and Kamal you seem to exhaust the supply of historical "benevolent dictators," if that’s what they were - there wasn’t much benign about Franco’s early years.
Benevolent dictators are like Communist governments - they may sound like a reasonable idea on paper, they may even start off well, but in practice they invariably lead to repression, injustice and corruption.
Allawi looks to be about as benevolent as skin cancer.
In the spirit of "let’s pretend its not burning" I was going to post something similar to Anonymous above about bi-cameral systems. N.Z. used to have a non-elected upper chamber, the Legislative Council, consisting of eminent persons (mostly but not necessarily ex-politicians) appointed in rotation by the party in power. It was abolished in 1950, partly because it turned out that if a party was in power for a long period, LegCo inevitably took on the coloration of that party.
I think I would differ however about lifetime appointment - there would need to be some rollover. I would also question the automatic assumption that there needs to be a President over and above an Upper House and a Parliament. In Westminister systems the monarch or equivalent is essentially symbolic - the Prime Minister wields the actual power.
In the case of Iraq, could such an upper house possibly be designed to reflect the diversities of the society, but in such a way that no one group (e.g. Shia) could dominate it numerically?
Presumably these questions are the sort of things the Constitutional Assembly is meant to discuss, over a year or so. But you haven’t got that time.
Is it remotely possible that the Assembly could throw up in a very short time a small group of acceptable leaders who could form a sort of Upper House before local representation is organised, and begin to govern? The insurgency seems to be as much against Allawi as against the Americans, presumably because he is their appointee. From earlier posts, you seem to be saying that its not necessarily the U.S. presence that’s fueled the resistance, its their tactics and manners since they arrived. Could formation of an immediate "Government" clearly independent of the Occupation force calm things down a bit?

Hello Abu Khaleel,
I think what I was trying to say above is the democracy is a means to an end not an end in itself. If the end is personal freedom or ethnic diversity then that is the real goal. I don't think legal constructs guarentee anything. If an autocracy would lead to greater good then that would be acceptable--few if any have. The good is order, security, peace, fraterity, equality, economic justice, fairness and stability. Power will not lead to any of those. Now, you tell me how to get from point A to point B.;-)

Forget about democracy.

America will not tolerate an Arab democracy close enough to hit Israel with short-range missiles.

Seriously forget about it. I know its hard because George W. Bush keeps lying to you and a lot of possibly well meaning Americans keep lying to you. But it cannot happen.

The best chance for a democracy would be for anti-American Iraqis to start a democratic movement.

That's problematic because the people who like democracy for democracy's sake are the same people most easily influenced by America's anti-Iraq agenda.

Maybe if there was an Iraqi Gandhi, educated in a way that he or she has been trained to favor democracy but antagonistic enough to Westerners to be seen as other than a sell-out, that person could start a movement.

Otherwise, Hosni Mubarak, welcome to Iraq. But securely installing Iraq's Mubarak is going to cost a few thousand American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

The he's going to stay in power the same way Mubarak stays in power, by jailing and torturing the opposition.

What's in it for Iraq's Mubarak? (Allawi?) He gets to put Iraq's oil revenues into swiss accounts in his name.

Until he's overthrown by either Khomeini which starts the sanctions then invasion then puppet process again or he's overthrown by Gandhi.

Gandhi coming to power which sets either the demonize until he seems like Khomeini then sanctions then invade then puppet process or encourage military coup then puppet process.

Good luck.

Again, we are running ahead of the debate… but a number of interesting points have been raised.

For decades, Lebanon had a viable democracy and was a haven for Arab dissidents in surrounding countries. However, allocating power on a sectarian basis proved to be a disaster and ultimately (together with many other external factors) led to civil war. Incidentally the Lebanese still retain that horrible quota system (the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim). Obviously, this will polarize society instead of bringing people together. This is why I'm opposing such an approach in Iraq so strongly.

On the other hand, imagine that you live in an area that is populated predominantly by people who are more or less (socially, religiously, ethnically, etc..) homogeneous (which is possible in Iraq if the district is small enough). All candidates are then likely to be of similar denomination. The electorate will then have a choice based on economic and other social issues instead of sectarianism being the main parameter for choosing candidates. If the electoral districts are small enough and the process is applied throughout the country, you end up representing all religious and sectarian groups fairly. The delegates will then have to fight out and iron out their differences (whether sectarian, religious, cultural, social or economic) inside chambers hopefully using words, and not in the streets using bullets. Doesn't this sound like a better alternative?

Another point we have to remember: If we do believe in democracy in principle, we cannot (and should not) set conditions for the people's choices, even though we do not like what they choose. This, of course, is the major hurdle in the face of applying democracy at the moment. The US administration (and a good chunk of the US public) seem to give themselves this right. Well, neither they nor you nor I have that right!

I think the statement "To me the most important thing is the security and happiness of the people, not abstract ideas of freedom which does not correspond to their culture" describes this very eloquently. Yet, so many people in Iraq and in the US seem to find much difficulty accepting that. In Iraq, I have come across countless cases where people are willingly ready to give up some of their "personal" freedoms for social considerations. I myself have done so on numerous occasions! I have no problem living with that!

I agree that the choice of the leaders in this critical phase is of paramount importance. You were extremely lucky with the decent group of people you call your "founding fathers". For a variety of reasons, I'm afraid we cannot hope for such a group to emerge under the present circumstances on a national level. However, there are many decent people locally known. Only in small districts can these people have a chance to be brought forward. Under the present design they do not!

As to something like a "House of Lords", I'm afraid it won't work. We had such a house of "dignitaries" between 1921 and 1958, appointed by the king of the time. The question is: who appoints these people? If an elected parliament does that it may be possible. Obviously it is too soon for that. Even then, we need to ensure that we do not "institutionalize" tribalism, which could be a fatal force for a modern society if not handled cautiously.

Regarding domination, it will basically be a question of power and money. I have discussed both briefly elsewhere but will do it again soon. Basically, this could be achieved simply by giving local power to local assemblies! Iraq is lucky I in having oil revenues (no need for taxes to raise money for public expenditure). Imagine that you divide the national oil income between central government (say 50%) provinces (25%) and small districts (25%). This simple arrangement will go a long way towards solving many of the domination, sectarian and development problems.

Finally, I think that the first step is the most important one. If somehow we manage to assemble a "house of representatives" that is seen as LEGITIMATE by a majority of the people, then most of our problems are solved! The question is how to get there!!

In trying to avoid long posts, it seems that I ended up writing long comments!! Anyway, I think only people who are really interested in these issues will get this far.

Regarding local governance.

Iraq has a problem in that it used to be a centralized command system under the Ba'ath party. As a result, many local commanders on the ground have reported that the local city councils and mayors they have tried to work with seem to be unable to function without a direct order from the central government. They don't think they are allowed to do anything without permission!!!

When given a budget and power, however, they almost always end up passing it out to their cronies instead of putting it to work for local rebuilding projects.

There are some structural problems with the interim government also because the police are not under local control and have no locally selected police cheifs. So the local government can't do much to improve security.

However, giving that control back to the local governments, given their current state of corruption, is probably not wise.

Iraq has some very entrenched social and cultural practices that are obstacles to locally-based democracy. Perhaps after a few rounds of elections at the local level some of these habits will be unlearned, but it's likely to remain problematic for a long time.

People just aren't used to governing their affairs on a local level without habitual corruption and tribalism determining where money is spent.

Unfortunately for a long time to come Iraq is going to have an oil economy, not just oil-based, but for all intents and purposes just oil. Everyone will talk about the oil belonging to the Iraqi people, but how will that be implemented? Billions of dollars of revenue gets attention from all parties both inside and outside the country. Whoever ends up controling the oil effectively controls Iraq whether you have a dictator or a demoncracy. The countries that need your oil (especially the USA which has no plan to wean itself from that teat) will simply not allow a system to be set up that could possibly turn off the flow or jack up the price too high. Probably one of the best ways to make this tolerable is to create institutions and policies that specifically so a maximal about of the oil revenue and related jobs go to the Iraqi people rather than to foreign companies or the Swiss bank accounts of anyone, Iraqi or otherwise.

Andy, I've heard it suggested that they should do something like what Alaska does - ever resident of the state gets a royalty check directly from the government. It's simply parceled out on a per-head basis.

Unfortunately, right now the oil money goes directly to the interim government to spend on reconstruction, so how one manages to get the government to give up that source of cash is a big problem. Anyone involved in the political process is going to be tempted to keep control of it.

Andy, I've heard it suggested that they should do something like what Alaska does - ever resident of the state gets a royalty check directly from the government. It's simply parceled out on a per-head basis.

Unfortunately, right now the oil money goes directly to the interim government to spend on reconstruction, so how one manages to get the government to give up that source of cash is a big problem. Anyone involved in the political process is going to be tempted to keep control of it.

Re: Regarding local governance.

The points mentioned regarding present local councils are largely true, but please consider the following as a possible explanation:

How were most of these local councils selected? It is the selection procedure itself and (consequently) the nature of the people taking part in the process under the present conditions that is the cause of most of this… and not local governance. [Lack of monitoring and accountability are of course important contributors]

In the few cases where local councils were "socially selected" by the people themselves (I am aware of at least three such councils), there was far less corruption (but not much less nepotism).

One of the major features of the present central government is corruption (for similar reasons). Does that mean that we cannot have a central government?

I disagree with the statement: “Iraq has some very entrenched social and cultural practices that are obstacles to locally-based democracy.”

I believe that the entrenched social and cultural practices in Iraq are one of the strongest arguments FOR local government. In small districts, people know each other. They interact with each other far more than people in the US for example. They can see and reach their delegates on almost a daily basis. They can have a significant social influence on them. In large areas in the Iraqi countryside a form of “social” democracy / consensus has always been practiced… with generally good results, especially in the absence of Law & Order imposed by central government.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Please, enlighten me: are you propsing some kind of soviet style government, but with real power to people?

Proposing, sorry.

I am proposing a grass-root democracy built from the bottom up where people can choose local representatives that they know and trust (and can reach, for feedback). I have outlined some of the highlights in my other blog (Is There a Solution?)


Thank you. I will read your other blog.
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