One of the most persistent assumptions of conventional wisdom in modern Western foreign policy, with the most catastrophic consequences, has been the assumption that parliamentary self-government will always work if put into place.
We know from experience that this is not true.
The success of parliamentary self-government has been underwhelming in Iraq, not just this time around, but also the last time that it was imposed.
Parliamentary self-government has not worked especially well in most post-colonial regimes where it was imposed. India has managed with heroic efforts, but only with lots of close calls, a national schism, and considerable pain as a result of government mismanagement. Turkey has managed, but only with not infrequent threats of military intervention.
Parliamentary self-government has failed from Russia, to Spain, to Africa (both North African nations like Algeria and Egypt, and Sub-Saharan nations like Liberia and Nigeria), to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Oceania, parliamentary self-government has almost always devolved into military coups, dictatorship, one party rule, civil wars or a combination of these political arrangements.
East Timor, touted as the paradigm of an imposed parliamentary self-government solution, is managing only with a massive infusion of international aid and international peace keeper enforced law and order.
Thailand was able to escape a parliamentary government failure only with the intervention of a monarch, and even then has been a hit or miss proposition.
Russia, another nation new to parliamentary government, is widely observed in the world scene to be backsliding into its less democratic Soviet ways.
Even those countries well known for their formative efforts at democratic self-government have had their rough spots. Democracy failed the first time around in France, and we are now on the “Fifth Regime” there. The United States had to extra-constitutionally ditch its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and endure a bloody civil war. The United Kingdom had to see the Glorious Revolution triumph with the supremacy of Cromwell’s Republic, only to fail again and return to a constitutional monarchy. The good guys lost in the Spanish Civil War leading to a generation of autocratic rule. Germany and Italy both succumbed to fascism, before returning to their pre-World War II status as parliamentary governments, and Italy spend a couple of generations coming to terms with corruption and the mob before it got its act together again.
It isn’t that all first time parliamentary democracies fail. Japan’s dominant party system, and the legitimacy created by having a constitutional monarch, helped it make its post-World War II transition to parliamentary government relatively painlessly. But, that was hardly a foregone conclusion. Nearby South Korea’s path to parliamentary self-government was not nearly so smooth, nor was that of Taiwan, Indonesia or the Philippines. Hong Kong secured prosperity and a liberal society at the expense of any meaningful self-government at all. Singapore, likewise, has been no model of democratic self-government.
This is all, by no means a call to ignore the faults of the military junta, the dictatorship, the one party state, civil war or colonialism. But, we need to recognize that while a successful parliamentary democracy may be the best form of government known to man, that an unsuccessful parliamentary democracy is merely a stepping stone to tyranny.
A modern constitution and parliamentary elections may be a necessary condition to a modern working parliamentary democracy, but they are not a sufficient condition. Making self-government work takes political skill, public administrative acumen, legitimacy, and a variety of institutions of civil society to function passably.
While the “best” system may be a true pluralistic multiparty democracy, simply pulling off a dominant party system in which the underdog parties are not banned, an inclusive one party system, a weak constitutional monarchy, or a colonial regime may be desirable alternatives to a failed experiment in pure constitutional government. While both Iran and China are soundly criticized for their failure to live up to international democratic self-government norms, both have more genuine democratic self-government than countries we count as allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and both are moving generally in the right direction from their more turbulent national nightmares of the 1970s. Neither, for example, has fallen into the trap of North Korea, which has evolved into an insular monarchy without the dignity and sense of obligation to the nation that the title affords.
Our biggest failure in Iraq was invading at all. But, our next biggest failure was our naive assumption that a modern Western parliamentary democracy could be put in place to replace Saddam’s regime with a minimum of fuss. We are now in the awkward position of having ceded our own authority to govern Iraq, without having put in place a functional and legitimate local civilian replacement.
Republican insistence on staying the course is largely driven by the probably correct assumption that without a U.S. military presence, that the Iraqi civilian government will fall apart, probably sooner than later. It looks a lot like the South Vietnamese regime just before it fell. Democratic and popular urges to withdraw, likewise, are largely driven by the observation that the situation isn’t getting any better, so we may as well bite the bullet now rather than later and cut our losses. Are they right? I don’t know. But, I do know that unless Iraq is better prepared to run itself before we leave that it will fall apart. The successor regime will probably be worse that the one we removed.