Don’t be ridiculous, you say. The world’s only superpower has been a democracy for 200 years.
Which is only partly true. Seventy-two years after the Constitution was ratified, the country ceased to exist. It was restored after four years of full-scale war and a suspension of Constitutional liberties by the government in Washington, most famously the writ of habeous corpus.
Few people outside revanchist dreamers of the Old South believe Lincoln was wrong, or that the government did not have the power to do what it did (the scholarly controversy is around which branch of government had the power to suspend the writ).
But this is the point: The country was not able to resolve its internal social and economic conflicts through its own democratic institutions. War, martial law, and military defeat were necessary.
That one side was in fact capable of defeating the other is a critical part of our democratic history — and an under-appreciated one. Without this reality, which had to be demonstrated on the ground at hideous cost, the US constitution would not have been worth the parchment it was written on.
Keep this in mind as you read the news from the Middle East.
The idea that any Iraqi faction, Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds, might defeat the other two is laughable. Even if the Kurds were not a factor, Shiites and Sunnis must deal with each other. Barring an apocalyptic regional war (which would be too calamitous to allow), both sides of Islam will continue. Like Protestants and Catholics, they will be with us into the distant future.
Then what of democracy in Iraq?
In a news story this morning, Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki is shown trying to maneuver the US into his corner, attempting to defeat ISIS while he still holds the reins:
The Iraqi prime minister, in an apparent rebuff to his international critics, said Wednesday that finding a political settlement to the differences among the country’s factions was not as important or urgent as fighting extremist Sunni insurgents.
The PM was quoted:
“The battle today is the security battle for the unity of Iraq… I don’t believe there is anything more important than mobilizing people to support the security situation. Other things are important, but this is the priority.”
If Maliki is successful in his tactics, he will have the upper hand for a while. He is maneuvering for US help, but even the US can not defeat all of Maliki’s enemies in the region. Nor will it try.
If the West comes to his rescue, Iraq’s democratic institutions will have failed once again. Its internal conflicts will remain as deep and intense as ever. And its position in the Middle East just as precarious.
Iraq is not the US. Its machinery of government works differently. Yet, at the bottom of it, it is a democracy. This is a source of weakness as well as strength. And it raises a mirror before the country that installed that machinery, asking the question, can democracy survive?