Policy Expert Carothers Says Chances for Democracy in Iraq and Region Are Dim

April 16, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that contrary to the hopes of many in the Bush administration, “I don’t think we’ll see a rapid transformation to a democratic Iraq.”

Carothers says that, as a result of the victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime, political conditions for Iraqis may improve in the next five to ten years. But he adds that he doubts that other Arab states will adopt democracy. “Do I think Iraq will be a transformative experience for Middle East politics? No.”

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Carothers was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on April 15, 2003.

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President Bush and others have said the victory in Iraq could lead to a spread of democracy in the Middle East. What do you think about that?

Let’s start with Iraq. I think we will see a serious effort made by the U.S. government to make Iraqi politics more democratic, more representative, and more free. It is certainly the case that it would be hard for Iraqi politics to be much worse than they have been for the last 10 or 20 years. So I expect to see some improvement. But I don’t think we’ll see a rapid transformation to a democratic Iraq, because Iraq faces a number of underlying problems.

You mean tensions among the different ethnic groups?

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I mean a combination of social, economic, and political factors. I think what’s very important to start with is the concentration of revenue around oil. When an economy is dominated by a single resource, it is difficult to have a system where people share power or alternate power politically. There is surprisingly little success in oil-rich states in achieving well-functioning democracies. Norway is the one country you can point to as an oil-rich country that is democratic. The list of failures is long and sobering. It is not just the fact that Iraq is a socially divided country with old traditions and ethnic groups and religious groups, but that oil-rich states have trouble with democracy.

Will the United States have to stay in Iraq for quite some time, at least to maintain order?

There is a strong tension in the United States between, on the one hand, “let [the Iraqi people] do things themselves,” and on the other hand, making sure Iraq turns out somewhat non-violent, more representative, and somewhat more pluralistic. I think what is going to happen is we’ll see a quick drawdown of the American military occupation, but I think we are going to be politically involved for some years to come. I don’t think we are going to find a stable, well-grounded Iraqi authority ready to take over substantial responsibility as quickly as we would like.

Is there any scheme you would recommend for Iraq? Many have suggested a federal structure.

Before we cook up a particular political scheme that we think will fix the problem with the Kurds, or fix the divisions between the Sunnis and the Shiites, it is more important that we concentrate on a process of building a basic political structure among all the major actors. Until all the parties buy in to a process of creating a consensus, of building a process over time, it does not matter what kind of political structure or political solution is proposed because it won’t stick. That’s the problem in Afghanistan. We don’t have a majority of the main political actors in Afghanistan really buying in to the idea of a central government.

What are the chances of the Iraqi war translating into progress on talks between Israelis and the Palestinians?

There is a hope that we have removed one source of aid to more extreme factions in the Palestinian movement and that this would weaken the extremist side of the Palestinian camp and make it more amenable to negotiations. But I don’t think that will have a big impact directly on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That conflict has its own reasons and its own logic, for better or worse. That situation will only begin to move if the United States is serious about expending political capital here in the United States and then in the region.

You mean on the Israelis.

On the Israelis, but on the Palestinians too. I don’t think we will see a direct benefit from the war. There’s the hope— and I think a lot of Europeans and people in the Middle East are now hoping— that the United States will turn to that conflict. But I don’t think we will find it any easier or very much easier now than we would have a year ago or two years ago.

There are two major problems, as I see it. One is getting [Palestinian Authority President] Yasir Arafat to endorse the new Palestinian prime minister and his policies, and the other is the seeming lack of enthusiasm from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the so-called “road map.”

In addition, there is not much support in Congress for the president to push on Israel. You have an election year coming up in the United States and you have people already starting to play election politics with some of these issues. And so, it is going to be a tough row to hoe for the president to formulate an approach that will please a wide array of people [in the United States] and then take it to the Middle East.

In the last few days, the United States has been pressuring Syria to change its politics. Will we see more of this, directed at Iran or Saudi Arabia?

I think we will certainly see Syria and some other Arab states become more cautious in their policies on issues like terrorism and in challenging the United States in any way. But I don’t think we will necessarily see any short- or medium-term gain in democratization.

Politically, the main effect of the invasion so far on other Arab states is to strengthen the hand of Islamist forces that are feeding on the anti-American sentiment, which the war aggravated. That in turn causes the governments of those countries— Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere— to hunker down and limit the amount of political [expression] and crack down on most demonstrations. So, if anything, there will probably be a reduction of incipient democratization as a result of these new tensions.

I don’t think we will see any great epiphany on the part of, say, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or King Abdullah of Jordan, or other leaders in the region who are well aware of what democracy is but have consciously decided over the last several years not to pursue democratic approaches because they don’t think it is good for their own countries.

Have you seen much reaction in the Arab world since the tearing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue last week?

Certainly a lot of Arabs are debating and discussing the political events in Iraq and trying to make sense of what really is happening, to figure out to what extent Iraqis support the invasion, and to what extent they are happy that the Americans are there. This is causing a lot of debate and probably argument in the Arab world, but for all that to translate into some positive political movement in Egypt or Saudi Arabia hasn’t really started to happen yet. Why? Because that would have to involve the two major anti-democratic forces in most Arab countries, the government and the major opposition, which is usually Islamist in nature. Neither of those two major forces is likely to view the experience in Iraq [and conclude that they] should become more democratic or more moderate.

I’ve long thought that if countries in the region were truly democratic, the United States would have had great difficulty getting access to any bases. Saudi Arabia, for instance, certainly would not have allowed it.

We launched the war, at least in the region, from undemocratic countries. The one democratic country nearby, Turkey, was the one place from which we could not launch the war. You are right that there certainly is a question in Arab minds about our sincerity in our commitment to democracy in the Arab world when we relied so heavily on undemocratic allies in this war.

Why do you think the United States invaded Iraq?

I think it was a combination of [factors]. At the core was a concern about security, above all about Saddam Hussein’s intentions for the region, since we believed he was pursuing weapons of mass destruction and had not given up his dreams for dominating the region. Second, we believed he was an unreliable leader, and he [might] be a most hostile and unreliable leader [armed] with weapons of mass destruction. Third was the possibility that Saddam might be connected to terrorists, and even though the connection to al-Qaeda was weak, there was a generalized fear.

Then, added on to those core security fears, was a broader vision that [the United States] could not only get rid of him but do something positive for the region that might improve negotiations with Israel, might improve [the U.S.] position economically in terms of guaranteeing oil supplies, and get rid of harder-line regimes that support terrorism. The invasion was part of a transformative vision. [U.S. officials] had a core security interest, added on to a more positive transformative vision. That combination in the context of post-9/11 proved very attractive to President Bush.

But does it look like big changes are likely in Syria or Iran?

There are people in the Bush administration who still believe there will be very positive benefits with respect to Syria and Iran as a result of our new position in Iraq. I don’t say I agree with them, but I think they feel that for the first time when we say these things to Syria, the Syrians wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning to wonder what really might happen if they are found to have chemical weapons or if they’ve harbored people from the Iraqi leadership. I think those people in the administration feel that [the war against] Iraq makes [U.S.] threats to regimes more credible and more likely to curtail certain types of behavior. I agree that the idea that this will bring moderate reformers to power in Iran is incorrect. Iranian politics are not likely to change dramatically just as a result of the Iraq invasion.

A key issue is the degree of Iranian interference in Iraq affairs?

Iran will be careful, as it was in Afghanistan, not to meddle around too much in the political reconstruction, since the United States is now on its border on both sides militarily and watching carefully to see what it does.

So, is your summary that, as a result of this war, there is no major political improvement likely in the region?

I think Iraqi politics will be better in five to ten years than it was five to ten years ago. I think Iraqis will have a better political life. And so there is improvement there for 25 million people. Do I think Iraq will be a transformative experience for Middle East politics? No.

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