The United States is not a democracy. This discovery runs against the grain of all the liberal, middlebrow pabulum imparted from grade school teachers, as well as the talking points of the average politician. Our country is more accurately a constitutional republic. And that means, above all, limits. Limits on power, limits on majorities, and limits on the proper scope of government action.
Further, these formal rules exist within a network of informal cultural restraints. Historically, our country’s class system always has been less rigid than that of Europe. Everyone from the plumber to the president proudly proclaimed his middle class bona fides. We also had comparatively little taste for political violence; election results would be respected. We had fairly similar expectations of government and its limits; thus, communist and monarchist persuasions, while not uncommon in the otherwise democratic states of France or India, are basically unknown to most Americans.
In short, we have had a consensus around the Founding documents along with a common moral and political vocabulary. Indeed, this common set of reference points allowed national healing after the great rifts of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and the Jim Crow era.
That might be a simplification, but it’s a fair one. It also suggests, at least implicitly, things have started to fray as of late.
By contrast, the false understanding of America as a democracy, has now reached a farcical stage in the great democracy-building exercise in Iraq. If the ongoing chaos that resulted in the withdrawal and reintroduction of American forces had not been enough, the recent winner of Iraq’s parliamentary elections is none other than Shia-cleric (and anti-American terrorist) Moqtada al-Sadr.
As reported in the New York Times:
The front-runner in Iraqi elections, the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, wasted little time trying to prove to potential allies that he is serious about shaking up the government and cleaning up corruption as he worked to cobble together a governing coalition.
It’s hard to believe it was a just over a decade ago that the image of Iraqis proudly holding up their purple-stained figures was supposed to inspire us all. Missing from the Bush-era enthusiasm for Iraq’s elections was an appreciation that it matters more what a government actually does, whether elected or not.
Mere elections do not guarantee law and order, an end to corruption, or peace with the United States. Nor do they guarantee legitimacy. We saw similar enthusiastic crowds in Libya and Egypt in recent years during the so-called Arab Spring. They brought about chaos and the murder of an ambassador in Libya and the extreme rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in historically friendly Egypt.
The Iraq War had numerous flaws. It had too few troops. The intelligence on which it was based was faulty and results-oriented. The occupation was botched from the start. But most important, what was missing was a sensible strategy, a tailoring of means to ends. Did we want Iraq for bases? For oil? Was the thinking that any regime would be better than Saddam Hussein? Where democracy fits into any of these goals, if at all, depends greatly on our broader strategy.
A Democratic Delusion
In the absence of promised weapons of mass destruction, from the time of the 2003 invasion through the present, the struggle to “maintain” the nascent, democratic Iraqi regime became a self-justifying end. The idea was that our prestige was on the line and that allowing democracy in some measure to triumph would, if not spawn the “reverse domino effect” of pro-democratic revolutions among Iraq’s neighbors, at the very least show an alternative path that would be a positive example to its neighbors.
Iraq has proven no such thing; instead, like the festering West Bank, it has been used as a propaganda cudgel to further inflame the Middle East against the United States, while robbing our country of its best men, substantial sums of money, and strategic agility to contain the more enduring and pervasive threat we face in the Middle East: anti-American Islamic terrorist groups.
Whether at home or abroad, it is best to remember that democracy is not a substantive end state, but a set of procedures regarding who can rule. Real good government consists in a series of substantive ends, such as prosperity, safety, justice, and national independence. Democracy is one among many mechanisms to choose rulers and laws. Majority-rule systems function best when it is a “government of laws, not men,” that is, when such governments have internal restraints and when the people can conform to and respect those requirements.
Lacking traditions of self-restraint, self-rule, and limited government, Iraq and other Middle Eastern democracies have devolved into winner-take-all systems of competing sectarian theocrats, substantively indistinguishable to outside observers. Or, put more simply, our national interests will not be furthered when democracy is adopted in places where the majority of people hate our country and have alien, illiberal values.
In this sense, recent events in Iraq are a microcosm of the Iraq War itself.
During the Iraq War, when not fighting Sunni extremists, our forces often were being brutalized by Shia extremists, including Sadr’s Mahdi Army. It was a no-win situation, where decapitating the brutal, but mostly secular, Baathist regime led to never ending conflict among competing sectarian thugs, none of whom were naturally friendly to the United States.
We were told when ISIS entered Fallujah in 2014, veterans of the earlier campaign were horrified to see the city they had won during the brutal 2004 Phantom Fury Operation taken over by Sunni extremists. “Politics of honor” supposedly required our return. If that is the case, what can we say to those veterans of the Baghdad and Basra battles against Shia extremists, whose leader has now won the Iraqi elections?
Both the Bush—and Obama—era foreign policies were notable for their misplaced idealism. This idealism led to the elevation of democratic procedures, while neglecting substantive results, such as whether a foreign government would act in a way friendly to U.S. interests or command the allegiance of the governed.
The idealists have a false and impoverished notion of what makes our country’s political system work, which leads to confusion in the conduct of foreign affairs. Our government is not a democracy, but a government of laws, characterized by checks and balances, and it is suited for a particular people. The U.S. Constitution’s preamble sets forth its limited, substantive purposes, including the “general welfare” and the “common defense.” It is supposed to ensure the “blessings of liberty,” not for Iraqis or any other people, but rather “ourselves and our posterity.” From our nation’s beginnings, our nation has had friendly relations with czars, republics, kings, and shahs. We did not require other nations to follow our system in order to trade with us or have peaceful relations.
Pursuing and promoting democracy in the Middle East, shorn of constitutional limits and agnostic to its substantive direction, has proven fatal as a practical matter. This pursuit has deprived our people of a moral vocabulary with which to criticize foreign elections, even when they result in such ludicrous results as extremist and hostile enemies of our country being elected.
In the morally inverted words of Defense Secretary Mattis, “The Iraqi people had an election, it’s a democratic process at a time when many people doubted that Iraq could take charge of themselves. So we will wait and see the results—the final results of the election. And we stand with the Iraqi people’s decisions.”
If there was any doubt America lost in Iraq, al-Sadr’s victory should settle the matter.
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Photo credit: HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images